Dienhart: Wisconsin rolling on toward Big Ten West title
Wisconsin wanted this one. It was tired of losing to Northwestern. It wasn’t going to be denied. And, it wasn’t.
Wisconsin 21, Northwestern 7.
“I thought there was some really good things that we did,” Paul Chryst said. “I thought that we were fairly consistent running the football. Defensively, I know they had the drive at the end of the first half, but I thought we did a lot of really good things defensively against what we thought was a really good Northwestern team.”
UW sat on a Northwestern attack that had been on a roll. That’s why the Badgers won for the first time in Evanston since 1999 and ended a four-game skid at NU. In fact, Northwestern had won six of 10 from Wisconsin and took a 13-7 win in Madison last season when the Badgers had three touchdowns negated by penalties.
“It was just one of those things where I really wanted to beat this team and I’m glad we got to do that,” said Badger wideout Jazz Peavy.
The loss probably eliminates Northwestern from serious contention in the Big Ten West, as the Wildcats are 4-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten a season after winning 10 games. But NU has a chance to finish strong with games at Purdue, at Minnesota and vs. Illinois. Nebraska began the day on top in the West with a 7-1 mark (4-1 Big Ten). But the Huskers have lost to the Badgers and play at Ohio State tonight and also have a game at Iowa looming.
Wisconsin? It’s dreaming bigger. Much bigger. The way the Badgers (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) are playing, they should be thinking about the playoff – even with two losses. Really. How could an 11-2 Big Ten champion Badger squad be left out? Wisconsin already has wins over three teams ranked in the AP Top 10 when they played the Badgers, taking down No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Michigan State and No. 7 Nebraska. Plus, Wisconsin would have toppled a top team in the Big Ten title game, likely Michigan or Ohio State. And the Badger losses would be high quality, as they have fallen to No. 4 Michigan by a touchdown and to No. 2 Ohio State by a touchdown in overtime. No team in America would have played a more daunting schedule.
But to keep rolling and win the Big Ten West and Big Ten title, the offense needs to continue to evolve. There just isn’t enough big-play ability on this attack. Too often, Wisconsin has to plod along. It is encouraging that Corey Clement continues to gain steam. He ran 32 times for 106 yards and a touchdown in the win, the third time in four games that he’s gone for over 100 yards.
“We really had to show who the best team was today and we didn’t want a referee to make the game time decision at the end,” said Clement, who was three totes shy of his career high in carries.
And Peavy continues to emerge as a big-play option on the edge. He made four catches for 73 yards vs. the Wildcats and ran 46 yards for a TD.
But will the two-quarterback system eventually hurt Wisconsin? Chryst continues to use both Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston, insisting each brings something different to the field. And, Chryst is correct. Hornibrook, a redshirt freshman lefty, is an accurate passer with some moxie. Houston, a senior, has a rifle for a right arm, but he is wont to make bad decisions. Still, so far, so good for the system.
The Badgers have three weeks to fine-tune the attack.
While the offense remains a bit of a mixed bag, the defense continues to shine and carry the team. The unit entered Saturday No. 2 in the Big Ten in scoring (14.6 ppg) and No. 3 in total defense (301.1 ypg). The rush defense has been best of all, as the Badgers began today No. 1 in the Big Ten (109.0 ypg).
The linebacking corps has been outstanding despite dealing with injury. Chris Orr, Vince Biegel, Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards all have missed time. In fact, Orr is out for the season. And T.J. Watt has been banged up. Still, the Wisconsin linebacking corps has been resilient and continues to shine, as players like Ryan Connelly and Garrett Dooley have stepped up. Today was another example of the defensive dominance we’ve come to expect from Wisconsin.
UW’s defense held the Wildcats to just 5-of-18 (27.8%) on third down. For the season, Badgers’ opponents are a mere 36-for-125 (28.8%) on third down, a figure that ranks fifth in the FBS.
Want more defensive excellence? Wisconsin’s D held NU to a season-low 39 yards rushing. The Wildcats entered the game averaging 138.8 yards per game on the ground. NU back Justin Jackson entered the game ranked No. 2 in the conference in rushing with a 108.5 per game rushing average with 868 yards on the ground. Wisconsin held Jackson to 42 yards on 13 carries.
Add it all up, and the Badgers have won 13 of their last 15 road games in Big Ten play. Overall, UW is 9-1 in its last 10 games away from Camp Randall Stadium, where the Badgers return next Saturday to host Illinois on Homecoming.
It’s all systems go for the Badgers, who should cruise to Indianapolis with a 10-2 mark.