A disappointing Wisconsin Badgers football season morphed into something even worse on Saturday at Ryan Field, which remains the house of horrors for UW despite winning in Evanston in 2016. The Badgers came out with no energy and the self-inflicted mistakes made for a forgettable day.
The only real constant for the underachieving Wisconsin offense this season has been Jonathan Taylor rushing for at least 100 yards each week. Taylor didn’t even come close to that mark in the loss and that wasn’t even the worst part for the sophomore tailback.
Northwestern’s 31-17 victory felt secure long before the final whistle, when Wildcat fans rushed the field in celebration. As the game slipped further and further away from the 20th ranked Badgers (5-3, 3-2) throughout the second half, so did what remains of their preseason goals.
The team ranked No. 4 in August won’t only wildly miss on the College Football Playoff, but its chances of a third straight Big Ten West title now appear bleak with four weeks of the season still remaining.
“I’m shocked,” wide receiver Kendric Pryor said when asked about the team’s 5-3 record. “I know we can play better than what we have in our losses. I just know we’re a better team than that. The mistakes we make, we’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Those mistakes were plentiful for the Badgers on Saturday. They lost three fumbles in their own territory that led to 17 Northwestern points and committed two fourth-down penalties that extended Wildcat touchdown drives.
Northwestern’s struggling running game, one of the country’s worst at 78.1 yards per game entering this week, posted a season-high 182 yards. That number shockingly out-gained UW’s 165, as the Badgers’ offense never found a rhythm in backup quarterback Jack Coan’s first career start.
“I was proud of the effort of a lot of our guys, but flat out we need to play better football,” Badgers head coach Paul Chryst said. “We’ve just got to play better football, and that starts with me as a coach and our coaches. We’ve got guys putting it out there, but we’ve got to play smarter and better football to give yourself a chance.”
Evan Bondoc’s interception set up an early touchdown for UW before Northwestern scored 31 of the game’s next 34 points, the last of those coming on Isaiah Bowser’s 2-yard run that gave the Wildcats a 31-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Minutes before Bowser broke the game open, Coan, who completed 20-of-31 passes for 158 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions, let the ball slip from his hands while scrambling, leading to a recovery by linebacker Nate Hall at UW’s 13-yard line.
Jonathan Taylor’s fumble on the UW 15-yard line late in the first half after an awkward handoff exchange with Coan led to Northwestern’s first lead of the day at 14-7, and Taylor’s second fumble two drives before Coan’s helped the Wildcats add a Field Goal.
Northwestern quaterback Clayton Thorson completed 17-of-30 passes for 167 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions but made crucial plays when the Wildcats needed them most.
Thorson’s 5-yard touchdown run to take that 14-7 lead came on third-and-goal. He stepped up to avoid pressure from Andrew Van Ginkel and made Ryan Connelly miss on his way to the end zone. Thorson also scrambled for 27 yards on a third-and-5 during Northwestern’s second half field goal drive.
“Heck, we think of him as a passer, and he’s a really good quarterback,” Chryst said, “but the biggest play might have been with his legs.”
The Badgers were set to get the ball back midway through the third quarter, trailing 14-10, but freshman Jack Sanborn’s roughing the punter penalty kept Northwestern on the field. What should have ended as a three-and-out turned into an 11-play, 70-yard touchdown drive finished off with a 24-yard grab in the back of the end zone that wide receiver Kyric McGowan made a great play on.
The Badgers fumbled on two of its next three drives and suddenly found itself down 31-10 and on the verge of its first loss to a Big Ten West opponent since 2015. Coan’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Pryor with 8 minutes remaining gave the Badgers a sliver of hope, but Northwestern came up with a fourth down stop on UW’s next possession before running out the clock.
The Badgers’ loss at Michigan two weeks ago marked the first time since 2010 that UW lost a regular season conference game by more than 7 points. UW’s now done that twice in three weeks to nosedive one of the most promising seasons in program history.
The Big Ten West isn’t completely out of reach for the Badgers, but it will be soon without dramatic improvements over the next couple weeks.
My two cents after eight games this season: Offensive Line is not as good as people say they are as a unit and/or they’ve grossly underachieved to this point. Defensive depth has been a trouble since day one with the injuries before the season even started. Outside Linebackers get little to no pressure. Young secondary. Kicking game has been “meh.” Quarterback play is as I’ve said before, average — better some days, worse others.