Maybe Wisconsin’s hopes of getting back to the Big Ten championship game aren’t exactly what you’d call very high. But quite frankly, coming into Saturday’s matchup with No. 19 Northwestern, the Badgers simply were focused on getting their season back in order.
In two of the previous three games, Wisconsin suffered devastating road losses, the biggest being at Ohio State two weeks ago, a result that puts the Buckeyes in control of the Leaders Division.
Ohio State will have to trip up somewhere along the way — twice in fact — if Wisconsin is to have any chance of claiming the division, but considering the Buckeyes’ remaining schedule, that doesn’t seem likely.
But that didn’t make this week’s game any less important for Wisconsin.
“All bye week and this game week of practice, it was emphasized, ‘Look, guys, this is a must-win game,’” senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. “Every game left on our schedule, we’ve got two losses, we can’t lose any more games. We’ve got to win out and see what happens. We know where we want to be and we know what we’ve got to do to get there.”
Control might be lost for the Badgers in the big picture, but it certainly was not against Northwestern.
The Wildcats entered the game with one of the more potent offenses in the Big Ten, averaging better than 470 yards and 39 points a game. But on Saturday, the Badgers suffocated the Wildcats, holding them to 241 total yards and sacking their quarterbacks seven times in a 35-6 blowout.
“You can kind of feel the offense on their heels,” said linebacker Chris Borland, who had a team-high 10 tackles. “Getting really aggressive is always a good time. That’s how you play defense.”
While the defense dominated, the offense wasn’t too shabby for Wisconsin, either.
They rolled up 527 total yards, including 241 on the ground and 24 first downs. Melvin Gordon carried 22 times for 172 yards and cored on a 71-yard run, while James White went for 101 yards on 19 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown run. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis added a 63-yard touchdown pass from Joel Stave.
It all added up to a necessary response for the Badgers.
“Losing those two games on the road, emotionally, it can take its toll if you allow it to and these kids didn’t,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “They don’t accept losing in any way, shape or form. I know I sure don’t.”
And with a favorable remaining schedule, the Badgers at least move forward knowing there’s still, at least, some hope.
“We’ve got a long season left, half our schedule left,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got a lot left to play for. I’m proud of the way this team has played so far. I know we have so much left in the tank.”
As good as Wisconsin was on Saturday, Northwestern was equally bad. Coming off a difficult loss to Ohio State last week, the Wildcats seemed to have little life, rushing for just 44 yards and going 2-for-17 on third down.
“I hope this gives our guys a punch in the face and wakes them up,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s hard to win Big Ten football games. When you get punched in the face, you’ve got to shake the cobwebs out.”
Northwestern will need to do that quickly considering its schedule is as tough as it gets. Already two games behind in the Legends Division, the Wildcats still travel to Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois while hosting Michigan and Michigan State.
That doesn’t exactly set up for Northwestern to rally and reach the conference title game.
“We dug ourselves a nice little hole,” quarterback Trevor Siemian said.
But the Wildcats are vowing to keep fighting.
“We don’t recruit quitters,” linebacker Damien Proby said. “We’re going to look to attack this week.”
It was a light week in the Big Ten, with four teams on the bye.
In West Lafayette, it appeared Purdue made it five teams. Actually, the Boilermakers have looked like that much of the season, save for one solid week when they nearly upset Notre Dame. But quite frankly, they’re just not any good.
Which is why Nebraska should be careful putting too much into its 44-7 victory Saturday. The Huskers played without quarterback Taylor Martinez for the third game. Tommy Armstrong Jr. started and completed just 6 of 18 passes for 43 yards with three interceptions. Ron Kellogg III stepped in and completed 10 of 13 for 141 yards and a touchdown.
The defense, one of the weakest in the conference, held Purdue to 216 yards, and the Boilermakers didn’t score until the final minute of the game. Purdue ran for just 32 yards on 25 carries while Nebraska added five sacks and held Purdue to 3-for-14 on third-down conversions.
“I think it’s skyrocketing,” Nebraska defensive end Avery Moss said the defense’s confidence. “We have DBs getting picks, linemen getting sacks, linebackers making plays on the ball. Every area is making plays, and it gives everybody confidence.”
The Huskers now get another bye week followed by a game at Minnesota, which entered the weekend ranked 106th nationally in total offense, while Purdue was 117th in total offense.
“I think we’re headed in a good direction,” coach Bo Pelini said.
True, but let’s see if it holds up in November with games against Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State.
If it does, then it’s time to get excited in Lincoln.