MADISON, Wis. - Scott Tolzien started the game with a bang but it took a late play by Chris Maragos to seal the victory as Wisconsin held on for a 28-20 win over Northern Illinois in the season opener.
The way it started though, it looked as if Wisconsin was ready to roll over the Huskies.
On UW's first play from scrimmage, Tolzien, making his first collegiate start, hit a sprinting Isaac Anderson in stride for an 80-yard touchdown pass after NIU bit on the play action fake.
The long touchdown immediately put Tolzien, who finished 15-for-19 with 257 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, in the record books as it tied for the fifth longest passing play in school history.
"We knew going into the game preparation this week (that) we were going to get that coverage," Anderson, who finished with three receptions for 100 yards and both a rushing and receiving touchdown, said following the game. "The DB was going to come down and I was going to be wide open.
"Coach Paul Chryst kept repping it every day and he kept saying we were going to strike up the band after that play, and surely we did."
Still, even with the early momentum boost, the Badgers struggled for the majority of the first half to find the endzone again. The rushing attack was inconsistent throughout the first half even though Tolzien was excelling in his first appearance as the starting quarterback in the passing game.
The second Badger score did not come until Anderson ran 23 yards on an end around to start the second quarter.
That was it for the first half however as UW entered the locker room with a modest 14-6 lead.
To start the second half though, the Badger offense came out with something to prove as Tolzien led an 11-play, 92-yard drive that was capped by a one-yard John Clay touchdown run.
Following that drive, and with a 21-6 lead, the Badger defense held NIU to a three and out forcing them to punt. On the ensuing drive, Tolzien led another sustained drive, this time anchoring a 12-play, 67-yard march that was also capped by a one-yard Clay touchdown run.
"I think we ate up about 12-minutes in the third quarter if I'm not mistaken," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following the game. "I think that ended up being the difference in the game, especially defensively.
"As thin as we were at the defensive line, just to be able to rest those guys was huge."
But, with the game looking well in hand with the Huskies down 28-6, NIU dug deep and found a way back into it. Following a nine-play, 76-yard scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter, NIU linebacker Cory Hanson picked off Tolzien on the Badgers first play of the ensuing drive.
Ten-plays and 31 yards later, NIU found the endzone again, much to the dismay of the 80,532 red and white clad fans in attendance. But the scoring drive did not come without controversy.
Facing third and goal from the one yard line, UW defensive end O'Brien Schofield drilled the quarterback on an option play seemingly forcing a fumble that he would go onto recover.
However, one of the officials blew the play dead early, which nullified any opportunity for a review.
Then, with a fourth and goal situation from the Badger six yard line, Antonio Fenelus was flagged for a pass interference penalty giving NIU another chance. On the next play, Chad Spann, who rushed for only 20 yards in the game, pounded it in. NIU capitalized the two-point conversion and cut the UW lead to eight.
A game the Badgers were leading 28-6 and in complete control quickly turned into a 28-20 nail-biter. To couple the momentum NIU had generated, they executed and recovered a perfect onside kick that gave them a chance to go down and potentially tie the score.
But the Badger defense, which had played well only to surrender a few big plays and allow NIU back into it, buckled down.
"We said let's go," UW sophomore J.J. Watt said. "We were not going to let them score. That was our mentality. We weren't going to let them get the ball anywhere near the end zone.
"There was really no question with that."
Facing a fourth and three from UW's 36 yard line, senior safety Chris Maragos broke up Chandler Harnish's pass and finally sealed the victory.
"To see our character show at the end when we stopped them, that was great," UW defensive end J.J. Watt, who finished with five tackles, said. "But we can't have mental lapses like we had. We can't have those problems and we're going to come in and fix them.
"But we came out with the W which was the most important thing and we're happy with that."