Although they were a patchwork group that had leaked oil through much of the season, the Badgers had put two distinct feathers in their cap over the past three weeks, limiting Purdue's pass-happy offense to a measly 89 passing yards and Michigan's top-scoring offense to a minute 194.
But while it seemed UW's youthful cornerbacks had finally put a cork in the dam, fifth-year senior Mike Kafka made the progress of UW's secondary, along with aspirations of a second-place finish in the Big Ten, wash away.
Northwestern's signal caller was deliberate in his dissection of UW's secondary Saturday, throwing for 326 yards on 26 completions and two scores to send the 17th-ranked Badgers to a 33-31 loss at Ryan Field.
"They were getting the ball out really quick," junior Niles Brinkley said. "The quarterback was doing a good job with the seam routes … We tried to slow them down as much as possible."
Kafka, along with a cameo throw by Zeke Markshausen, torched UW's secondary for 248 passing yards, including six passing plays of 21-yards or more, and three scores in the first 30 minutes.
Coming into the game, the Wildcats (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) had eight offensive plays that exceeded 30 yards. Saturday against Wisconsin (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten), the Wildcats had four plays over 30 yards in the first half (six for the game).
"That was probably the worst first half we have played all year," senior Jae McFadden said. "We weren't on the same page."
Every first-half drive seemed like a passing clinic for Kafka. On the game's opening drive, Kafka was 5-of-7 for 60 yards, including a key 21-yard conversion on third-and-10 to Markshausen, and a 26-yard strike to Andrew Brewer for the opening touchdown.
As it turns out, the first drive was a glimpse of the Kakfa-Brewer horror movie, with the UW secondary playing the ill-fated victim. The next two scoring drives saw Kafka hit a wide-open Brewer for 34 yards, leading to a field goal, and again on a third-down slant for a 12-yard touchdown.
"Anytime you can get so many yards without any time coming off the clock and they are able to line back up and do it again," UW coach Bret Bielema said, "you could definitely see our defensive guys on their heels a little bit."
The latter play finished a seven-play, 34-yard drive for Northwestern immediately after the Badgers had scored back-to-back touchdowns to take their first lead of the game at 14-10. The drive started when returner Stephen Simmons carved UW's kickoff return unit for a 64-yard gain.
"It was a momentum swing," Bielema said. "We weren't able to really stop them in the first half defensively. They did a good job of throwing and catching."
More important that throwing and catching was the job Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz did in preparing the Wildcats. Hankwitz, who served as UW's defensive coordinator in 2007 and 08 before being fired, had coached the Wildcats defense so efficiently that multiple UW secondary members admitted that Northwestern was calling out the coverages the Badgers were running.
"We should know with Coach Hank being here that they would know some of the stuff," junior Jay Valai said. "This is Northwestern. They have smart players, obviously, and play smart football."
"Regardless of what they knew, we had to play more technically sound than we did."
While UW wasn't able to add adjustments until halftime, one of the biggest plays of the game came on a wrinkle that Northwestern unleashed on cornerback Devin Smith.
On a backwards pass from Kafka to Markshausen, Smith misread his keys, breaking toward the ball, leaving Sidney Stewart wide open for a 38-yard touchdown catch.
"I thought he was blocking on me, so I was trying to come up and support on the tackle," Smith said. "That was a mistake on my part."
Northwestern's deliberate passing attack allowed them to throw UW's time-of-possession game right back in the Badgers faces. Leading the conference and ranking fourth in the country in time of possession (33:15), the Badgers won the battle, but the Wildcats were able to hold the ball for 28 minutes, 54 seconds, the most time an opponent has had since Iowa.
"Wisconsin is known for running the ball and their power offense," Kafka said. "They are known for eating up the clock, and I think we held our own for the most part. We kept the ball in our hands and that helped us."
The Badgers' adjustments at halftime did show in the results. After allowing 292 offensive yards – 248 of which were passing – and 27 points, Wisconsin yielded just 116 passing yards and six points. The problem was the deficit was too great, as UW never garnered a second-half lead.
"We just have to go back and regroup, make some changes and move forward," Brinkley said. "We are just really focused on bouncing back … and try to make it better."