The Cornhuskers can run. But Wisconsin sure as heck isn’t going to let Nebraska hide.
The Badgers — No. 8 College Football Playoff rankings, No. 8 AP — fired the first shot in Week 10 with a strong, businesslike 21-7 victory at Northwestern Saturday. One that proved significant on two fronts:
1. It was Bucky’s first win at the unfriendly confines of Ryan Field since 1999, when some of the current Badgers (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) were still in training pants.
2. It crosses off arguably the toughest test — certainly the hardest road date — left on Wisconsin’s regular-season slate.
3. It keeps the Badgers within shouting distance of Big Ten-West-leading Nebraska (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten before Saturday night, No. 10 CFP) with some very winnable games yet to come. Wisconsin hosts Illinois (3-6, 2-4) next weekend; visits Purdue (3-6, 1-5) on Nov. 19; and hosts Minnesota (7-2, 4-2) in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Nov. 26. The Badgers will be favored — probably by double digits — in all three contests.
Especially given how they started and finished at Evanston, pinning the hosts deep in their own territory, time and again, and daring the Wildcats to drive the length of the field against one of the best defenses in the country.
With the exception of a handful of drives, including a hurry-up set that more or less ended the first half, Northwestern couldn’t.
The Badgers’ core principles weren’t remarkably different from last November’s tussle with the Wildcats, but the execution was a 180-degree twist for the better. Wisconsin turned over the ball five times at Camp Randall Stadium last fall in a 13-7 setback. Saturday? Zero giveaways. Coach Paul Chryst’s offense was tagged for five sacks against Northwestern in 2015. This time? Zip.
Same as it ever was: Take care of the football, and let the defense take care of the rest. Just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, the Wildcats, trailing 13-7, drove to the Badgers’ 19-yard line and threatened to flip the narrative.
Only it flipped on the hosts, and quickly. On third-and-21, Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson scrambled right, pursued by a horde of Wisconsin defenders. As Badgers lineman Conor Sheehy had the signal-caller in his clutches, Thorson fumbled as he attempted to cock back and chuck the ball away in a hurry. The young quarterback basically lateraled to no one, and Wisconsin S D’Cota Dixon scooped up the loose ball and ran it back 22 yards to the home 45.
The Badgers took over and stuck it in the end zone after nine plays, again staking their defense to a two-score advantage. Even Chryst’s quarterback rotation worked, with senior Bart Houston succeeding Alex Hornibrook and sealing the game with his smarts and legs, including a series of backward scrambles that bled the clock from 1:56 left in the fourth quarter to just 18 seconds in three plays.
The Wildcats (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten), who ran for 149 yards at Camp Randall last November, were held to 39 on the ground. The Badgers rushed for 190, including 106 from Corey Clement and 54 from redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw.
It was an old-school brawl, with old-school bruises and old-school warts. But on the road, in November, old school works. Beautifully.
#Badgers held the ball for 40:25. NU just 19:35.
— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) November 5, 2016
The Huskers finished the afternoon still clinging to a mathematical division lead; the Badgers hold the tie-breaker thanks to a head-to-head overtime victory last weekend in Madison. The Big Red still controls their divisional destiny, but this much is clear: When it comes to a berth in Indianapolis, the Badgers aren’t going to be shy about making them work for it.