It was an all-too-familiar scene.
The Wildcats were backed up to their own 16-yard line late in the third quarter. They were down 7-3 to eighth-ranked Wisconsin, and a brilliant punt return by Riley Lees had just been called back by a penalty, eroding great field position. It was up to quarterback Hunter Johnson to recover lost yardage and lead the team downfield.
In a moment that drew parallels to the ending of the Northwestern-Stanford game, Johnson got sacked hard by Wisconsin’s Eric Burrell and lost the football. Matt Henningsen recovered it for the Badgers in the end zone, and from then on it was clear that Northwestern would play from the back foot.
Ultimately the Wildcats’ offense faltered for too long (especially in the absence of veteran receiver Ben Skowronek), and a small late-game rally wasn’t enough. Northwestern (1-3, 0-2 Big Ten) fell 24-15 to #8 Wisconsin (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) and will need another one of their signature season turnarounds in order to have any chance at a bowl game.
“We've got a good football team," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald after the game, referencing how Northwestern kept it close before Johnson's fumble. "We're just not playing consistent enough, not taking care of the ball enough. When you lose two games, when your defense doesn't give up the points for the reason why you lose, that makes it tough to win."
Wisconsin’s defense preyed on the ’Cats. An astounding 14 of the team’s 24 points came from two of their three turnovers: the fumble by Johnson (10-for-21, 59 yards) and Noah Burks’ 68-yard pick-six against backup Aidan Smith (8-for-20, 99 yards, 1 INT, 1 TD), who entered the game after Johnson was injured.
The Badgers’ front seven bullied the offensive line to record five sacks, seven quarterback hits, thirteen tackles for loss and two fumbles. Though Johnson and Smith made a few strong plays with their feet during the game, they were also pressured and at times blindsided by big hits.
While Northwestern’s passing wasn’t exactly effective (the two quarterbacks combined for 158 yards and went 18-for-41 on passes), the running game struggled as well. Both Drake Anderson (16 rushes, 69 yards, 1 touchdown) and Isaiah Bowser (6 rushes, 10 yards) couldn’t create many decent-yardage plays. Without an early 31-yard rush by Anderson, the two would’ve combined for just 48 yards on 21 rushes.
Bowser, who ended last season as the clear starter, was limited in his carries. Fitzgerald mentioned Bowser’s recovery from injury as playing a factor.
"He's been grinding through injuries," Fitzgerald said. "I'm so proud of how tough he is."
Defensively, the Wildcats fought hard against a Wisconsin team that dropped 28 first-half points on Michigan the previous week. The Badger’s first possession—a rush-heavy drive that ended with a 13-yard Jonathan Taylor touchdown run—would produce their only points until halftime.
Taylor is one of college football’s star running backs, and though Northwestern gave up several big plays to him, it never seemed like he was in control of the game. Badger quarterback Jack Coan performed admirably but wasn’t a threat to complete long downfield throws. JR Pace intercepted a Coan heave intended for Quintez Cephus for Wisconsin’s only turnover on offense.
In the fourth quarter, Wisconsin’s Collin Larsh kicked a 36-yard field goal to put the Badgers up 17-3. Burks’ interception shortly after made it 24-3 and appeared to signal doom for Northwestern. But despite their offensive woes, the team wasn’t done fighting.
On the next drive Northwestern punted the ball to Wisconsin’s Jack Dunn, but he couldn’t hold on to it and Raymond Niro III came up with the fumble recovery. The moment was a lifeline for Northwestern and extended the drive.
After some big running plays and a Wisconsin pass interference call, Anderson ended up scoring a 4-yard rushing touchdown. The team then tried for a two-point conversion, but failed to score it.
Just three drives later, Northwestern got another touchdown. First downs from passes and rushes set up a JJ Jefferson 15-yard scoring reception from Smith. But another two-point play by the ’Cats fell short, keeping Wisconsin’s lead within two possessions.
Fitzgerald was aware of the reaction that the failed two-point conversions could've had, and said a reason for his decision-making came from analytics.
"When you're down 15," Fitzgerald explained, "you go for two because those are the analytics that we pulled to try to shorten the game and have less possessions to win the game. You go for two early, which unfortunately a lot of people don't believe in, which we subscribe to, to be able to know what you have to go for at the end of the game."
Smith would end up throwing for two more first downs, but was unable to lead another scoring drive. After getting sacked on 3rd & 10, he threw a 13-yard pass to Lees that didn’t cover the necessary 19 yards. Wisconsin took over on downs and secured the win.
While the Wildcats' didn't have any strong kickoff or punt returns, their special teams unit did come up with some big plays.
Charlie Kuhbander kicked a 29-yard field goal in the first quarter to reduce Wisconsin's lead to 7-3. It was his fifth-straight made field goal, putting him 5-for-6 on the season after going 5-for-9 last year. The kick came after a Wisconsin facemask penalty during a punt gave Northwestern a first down.
Niro's fumble recovery after a punt in the fourth quarter led to Northwestern's first touchdown of the game. On the ensuing kickoff, an onside kick by Trey Finison was recovered by Kyric McGowan to give Northwestern another chance to score. Unfortunately, the drive ended with a lost fumble picked up by the Badgers' Mike Maskalunas after Smith was sacked by Chris Orr.
At time of publishing, the nature of Johnson's injury was unknown. Smith had previously seen action against Michigan State, and may need to be counted on if Johnson needs time to recover.
The loss of T.J. Green to a season-ending injury has hurt Northwestern greatly this season, both in position depth and game experience. Though Green only threw a combined 37 passes in the past two seasons as backup to longtime starter Clayton Thorson, Johnson is a fresh transfer and Smith's first pass as a Wildcat came against Michigan State last weekend.
Game stats and details provided by SIDEARM Sports