MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Badgers got back on track in the Big Ten race with a 35-6 thumping of No. 19 Northwestern on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) stifled a usually potent Wildcat offense, holding Northwestern (4-2, 0-2) to just 241 offensive yards on 64 plays.
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said his defense was "awesome" against the Wildcats, after they tallied up seven sacks and allowed the Wildcats to convert just 2 of 17 third downs.
"I thought they swarmed to the ball and communicated well, the pursuit on the quarterback was obviously very good all day long," Andersen said. "Offensively we did what we had to do. I'm not going to talk about one thing negative today because this was a big win and these kids need to enjoy it."
The Badgers also forced a fumble, intercepted a pass, and registered three hits on Northwestern's quarterbacks. The Badgers turned the ball over three times of their own, but their defense held the Wildcats to just two field goals on Northwestern's ensuing drives.
"One of our big goals is to whenever the offense turns the ball over to hold [the other team] to nothing," senior linebacker Conor O'Neill said after the game. "Our defense was able to respond whenever we had a turnover, and it's always good to see our guys put out the fire from a momentum swing.
The Badgers got off to a slow start offensively, but eventually they were able to take advantage of some excellent field position. Wisconsin's first three drives ended quickly, but they scored a touchdown on five of their next 11 possessions to put Northwestern in a hole that seemed even deeper with Wisconsin's defense playing so well.
Quarterback Joel Stave had another up and down day under center, completing 17-of-28 passes for 241 yards despite losing senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis early in the game to a head injury. Andersen said he expects Abbrederis to play next week against Illinois, and praised his young receivers for stepping up in the moment.
"It was good to see some kids step up and make some plays," Andersen said. "But that's been the challenge- we've talked about it all year long. [We need] a couple receivers to step up and help Jared out. Well today there was no Jared so they had to help the offense out. We're getting better in that area."
Tight end Jacob Pedersen finished the day as Stave's top target, catching four passes for 30 yards and a touchdown. And while Stave focused most of his attention on the running backs and tight ends after Abbrederis went down, wide receivers Jeff Duckworth, Jordan Fredrick and Alex Erickson combined to catch five passes for 91 yards in the game.
The Badgers also had another impressive performance on the ground, after Northwestern held the Badgers to just nine rushing yards on five carries in their first three possessions. Melvin Gordon finished the game with 176 rushing yards on 22 carries, while James White rushed for 108 yards on 19 carries. Both running backs scored touchdowns in the game, and the Badgers finished the day averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Andersen said he doesn't want people to overlook how well the Badgers ran, even though big days from Gordon and White have become the norm when the Badgers play at Camp Randall.
"It should definitely be mentioned, with out question," Andersen said. "They should all be mentioned- the offensive line, to the tight ends, to the full backs, to the wide receivers, to the quarterback checking it. And those tailbacks running the football- those young men are very talented, we're very lucky to have them in this program."
The Badgers will head on the road to Illinois next week for a night game at Memorial Stadium. And while the Badgers are going to enjoy their dominating win over the Wildcats, Andersen said he hopes his team can find a way to channel Saturday's performance into their next game against the Illini.
"Whatever we did we should put it in a can and seal it and unleash it next Saturday," Andersen said.
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.