"That's totally my fault. It was a miscommunication. I read the play wrong."
Those are three things that you don't want to hear from your signal caller with the game on the line.
UW junior Scott Tolzien was solid through three quarters, as he eclipsed 200 yards passing for the fifth time this season and his two touchdown passes to Garrett Graham gave him 16 for the year, putting him in eighth place on UW's single season list. He kept UW in the game when the UW secondary tried to take the Badgers out of it.
It was a 180 role reversal in the fourth quarter, as Tolzien was only 1-of-4 for 6 yards in the final 10 minutes.
"When you win games, it's easy to put (missed plays) behind you," Tolzien said. "We definitely left plays on the field and it ultimately cost us."
Faced with a third-and-7 at the UW 47 in the final 8 minutes, miscommunication between Nick Toon, who ran the correctly called post route and Tolzien, who threw the ball to the corner, stymied the drive.
"It wasn't anything up in the box or a read route," Tolzien said. "I just thought he was running a different route."
After a fumble cost UW on its second-to-last drive, the UW offense had one more chance with 42 seconds left to make amends. That hope was quickly dashed when Tolzien unleashed a bomb in the direction of Isaac Anderson that was picked off by NU's Jordan Mabin to end the game.
"There is still plenty of time to throw it underneath and get some yards and run out of bounds," Tolzien said. "We'd have a few more plays after that and we only needed a field goal."
An ironic ending, seeing as what happened the last time UW was in Evanston. Down three with one minute left, then-UW quarterback John Stocco threw an interception on his first pass attempt, ending the comeback attempt.
Throw in the fact that UW, who started the second half down 13, couldn't capitalize after running six straight pass plays to get down to the NU 11, but couldn't punch the ball into the end zone. Tolzien overthrew Nick Toon, saw a screen pass to Zach Brown go for a loss of two yards and led Kyle Jefferson too far in the end zone, forcing UW to settle for a field goal. In the end, those missed four points were costly.
Even with the leading rusher in the Big Ten conference, the Badgers couldn't find any rhythm against Northwestern's front seven. Sophomore running back John Clay finished with 23 carries for 100 yards, his fourth straight 100-yard game and seventh of the season, but Wisconsin finished with only 99 total rushing yards, second-lowest of the season.
"I take pride in that," said Clay, who scored his 13th touchdown of the season on a one-yard dive in the second quarter. "My teammates count on me and they put it on my shoulders …We were right there, knocking at the door and we had a mistake. We gave them the momentum."
The previously mentioned fumble occurred when Clay, who has rushed for 1,224 yards this season, took a handoff on third-and-one, tried to hurdle over the pile created by linebacker Quentin Davie, but fumbled when Davis pushed Turner into Clay.
"I wasn't having the ball high and tight," said Clay, who hadn't lost a fumble since Week 3 against Wofford. "I was just trying to fight and get the first down and let loose with the ball when I bumped into one of my guys and I dropped it."
"My guess is No.32 will take this one to heart," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "It will be a growing experience for him."
UW got little production from Montee Ball (four carries, 12 yards) and end arounds from Nick Toon (1 for 8 yards) and David Gilreath (1 for minus 5) were ineffective, especially when Gilreath failed to read his blockers, adding to a frustrating day.
Graham grabbed two touchdown passes and had a career-high 98 receiving yards and Toon had a career-high seven receptions for 80 yards, putting him only 30 yards shy of 1,000 for the season.
It was a rough day for Isaac Anderson. Going along with his special team's gaffe (which we'll discuss later), Anderson dropped a pass on UW's first offensive play looking back into the sun that cost UW at least 35 yards, was also whistled for a holding penalty that cost UW a first down and was flagged for illegal motion on a play in which he caught a touchdown pass on UW's first drive of the second half, forcing UW to settle for a field goal.
Wisconsin gave up three sacks, two quarterback hurries and had a challenging time containing Brad Phillips, who looked superhuman Saturday. Phillips had 12 tackles (11 solo) two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry.
The Badgers struggled to open the running game for Clay and Ball and UW got only six first rushing first downs, very unlike a UW offense.
UW knew that if it could hold Northwestern, who entered the game eighth in the conference in rushing (124.2 ypg), that the Badgers would be the first team since Ohio State in 1998 to go an entire Big Ten season without allowing a team to rush for 100 yards in a game.
The Wildcats managed only 73 rushing yards, but it was moot point considering all the defensive problems the Badgers incurred in the first half. The Badgers front line got little pressure on Mike Kafka, registering four quarterback hurries but only one sack, courtesy of Jeff Stehle. Many times UW had Kafka within reach, but let him escape and complete a strike down field.
But the problem fell on the linebackers and the secondary for giving up 248 passing yards and 27 points in the first half. That's not going to get it done and it didn't. Kafka completed multiple passes over the linebacker and in front of the secondary throughout the first half, as Northwestern has four plays that went for 30 yards or more in the first half alone.
UW was better in the second half, but it was too late to repair the damage.
"That was probably the worst first half we have played all year," senior Jae McFadden said. "We weren't on the same page … We went in at halftime and got it fixed. We just dug ourselves too deep a hole to get out of and it hurt us in the second half."
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. Kafka was 5-of-7 for 60 yards on the first series, a drive that set the tone for the half.
"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," Bielema said, "you could definitely see our defensive guys on their heels a little bit."
One of the biggest plays of the game came on a backwards pass to Markshausen that sucked in cornerback Devin Smith, causing him to leave his receiver open for a 38-yard score.
"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."
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," junior Niles Brinkley said. "We are just really focused on bouncing back … and try to make it better."
Once again, UW's kickoff coverage was a killer. After UW took its first lead at 14-10, the Badgers allowed NU returner Stephen Simmons carved the kickoff for 64 yards. Simmons averaged 38.8 yards per return, 16.1 yards above his average, and that return to the UW 34 helped the Wildcats take the lead for good.
"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."
On a second-quarter kickoff, the kick hit Anderson at the 1-yard line and rolled into the end zone. Not knowing he could down the football, Anderson chose to pick up the ball and run instead of taking a knee for a touchback, only getting to the 5-yard line.
"He thought he had muffed the ball going into the end zone and had to bring it back out," Bielema said. "Obviously, the official was trying to help him out by signaling a touchback as it was. A bad decision."
Aaron Henry was flagged for a holding penalty on NU's next-to-last punt cost UW 10 yards and forced the offense to start from its 34. It was a horrible penalty, considering it was a punt that was fair caught.
The only bit of good news was David Gilreath's 68-yard punt return that seemed to be the momentum lift the Badgers needed, cutting the lead to 27-24. It might be the lift Gilreath needs, as he entered the day averaging 2.5 yards on punt returns, with a long return of 7 yards.
With all the mistakes, the return gets lost among the muck.