Northwestern (3-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) was forced to punt on its last drive, setting up No. 14 Wisconsin with the ball at the UW three-yard line, trailing by three. Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco had 1 minute, 23 seconds to work with but his first pass of the possession was picked off by Wildcat safety Reggie McPherson, ending Wisconsin's hopes of a perfect 6-0 record.
"I completely thought we would go down and score. It was just a mistake, I guess, on my part," Stocco said. "I was just trying to hit J.O. (Jonathan Orr) over the middle and their guy (McPherson) made a nice play. I tried to keep it low, you know, safe throw. But he made a nice play on it."
Wisconsin (5-1, 2-1) led 17-10 at the half but both teams' offenses exploded in the third quarter, producing 38 points within a six-and-a-half-minute stretch at the end of the third quarter and early in the fourth.
Wisconsin led 17-16 midway through the third quarter, the last point at which the Badgers were not playing catch-up. With about six minutes left in the third quarter, Northwestern tailback Tyrell Sutton scored the first of his four touchdowns on a one-yard run, putting Northwestern up 23-17.
From that point, the Badgers and Wildcats traded scores in rapid succession. Two-and-a-half minutes later, Badger kicker Taylor Mehlhaff connected on a 46-yard field goal to make the score 23-20. A minute later, NU receiver Kim Thompson caught a 52-yard pass from quarterback Brett Basanez to put the Wildcats up 30-20.
But Wisconsin tailback Brian Calhoun, who finished with 122 rushing yards and 128 receiving yards, brought UW to within a field goal a minute later, with a one-yard touchdown run that made it 30-27.
Sutton responded with a 14-yard touchdown run less than 30 seconds later, after Gerard Hamlett ran Mehlhaff's kickoff 81 yards to the Wisconsin 14.
And just 47 seconds into the fourth quarter, Badger receiver Jonathan Orr caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from Stocco, his second of four trips to the end zone Saturday. At that point the score was 37-34 in favor of Northwestern.
"I thought our offense answered, I thought they really competed, I thought John saw things very well," head coach Barry Alvarez said.
"When you get in a shootout like that, you can't slow them down on defense. I'm pleased that our offense allowed us to be competitive," Alvarez said.
It was at that point that Wisconsin's offense struggled to keep up, allowing Sutton to score his third and fourth touchdowns. Sutton's third touchdown gave Northwestern a 44-34 lead. A questionable holding penalty on Wisconsin's subsequent drive forced the Badgers to punt. On the next drive, Sutton scored on a 62-yard scamper into the end zone, putting Wisconsin down 51-34. Sutton was so strong against Wisconsin's defense that he bulldozed his way to 244 rushing yards, accounting for the vast majority of Northwestern's 313 yards on the ground.
"Obviously, we didn't tackle very well," Alvarez said. "(Sutton) ran through a lot of tackles but there were a lot of missed tackles. But I thought that he's a strong, strong runner."
"He's a good running back," Calhoun said on Sutton. "I really didn't know much about him going into the game but he definitely proved that he's a pretty tough running back."
With just over four minutes remaining, Wisconsin responded with two quick dances down the field, both of which resulted in touchdowns by Orr, who finished with 89 receiving yards a career-high four touchdowns.
"Obviously I like throwing to Jonathan," Stocco said. "He's big, he's athletic. And a couple of the plays, we knew he had a good opportunity to get open in there and he made a ton of big plays for us."
Stocco also had one of the best performances in his career, with 326 passing yards and four touchdowns on 24 of 31 passing. But he also threw two picks and was sacked twice; Northwestern took advantage of the first of his interceptions by marching 53 yards on nine plays for a touchdown, its first of the game.
Wisconsin's offense put up 48 points on 515 yards but its defense allowed 674 yards and 51 points. Wisconsin's defense clearly could not contain Sutton, but it also could not stop Basanez, who was 26-of-36 for 361 yards and three touchdowns. In addition to Thompson's 52-yard reception, Wisconsin's secondary allowed two passes of 33 yards and two of 27 yards, all to different receivers.
"Give (Basanez) credit, he played very well," Alvarez said. "He knew where to go with the ball — he deals it pretty well."
Prior to this game, Wisconsin had allowed 18.2 points and 336.8 yards of offense per game. Saturday, the defense gave up almost three times as many points and about twice the total offense.
"It's just not our defense," said Mike linebacker Mark Zalewski, who finished with five tackles, including one for loss. "I don't think it's who we are and it's shocking but I don't think it will happen again. I think we'll correct it during this week."