EVANSTON, Ill. — Rob Havenstein knew he needed to take a chunk of the blame.
While criticism will fall to the quarterback position after the University of Wisconsin’s 20-14 loss at Northwestern on Saturday, the senior right tackle made it clear that much of the Badgers’ poor play under center was a result of the unit in front of Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy.
The Wildcats were only credited with one sack, but UW’s quarterbacks were forced to escape pressure much more often.
“It doesn’t matter who’s back there throwing the ball,” Havenstein said. “If he’s getting hit or he’s not getting time, that comes down to the offensive line.”
Two of the Badgers’ four interceptions were a result of McEvoy or Stave trying to throw while being hit.
McEvoy threw an interception in the end zone on UW’s first possession of the game, ending a promising drive that began on its own 6-yard line.
The first of Stave’s three second-half interceptions came after his arm was hit by Northwestern defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, and the Wildcats scored one play later to take a 17-7 lead.
The offensive line also was called for three holding penalties, one of which was declined.
“I’ve just got to let go,” said Havenstein, who drew one of the flags. “Tanner’s back there and I can feel the defense running around. I’ve just got to be smarter than that. I thought we’ve protected better than what we showed at times last year. But when you have a bad game like this, you’ve kind of got to look internally and really get back to the fundamentals and basics. It wasn’t good enough today.”
Gordon not enough
It was the great anomaly in UW’s loss: Junior tailback Melvin Gordon rushed for a career-high 259 yards, but the Badgers scored just 14 points.
“It’s tough,” said Gordon, who seemed to take responsibility for UW’s inability to better translate his whopping rushing total on the scoreboard. “You’re trying and trying. You break some long runs. And you’re still trying. And you get by the goal line and you come up short and get no points. It’s tough.”
The Badgers failed to capitalize on two of the three Gordon runs that fueled his big afternoon.
On the second play of UW’s opening drive, Gordon bolted 58 yards to the Wildcats’ 36 only to be knocked out of bounds. The Badgers got as far as the 19 only to have the drive end when Godwin Igwebuike wrestled a pass away from UW’s Alex Erickson in the end zone.
The Badgers did capitalize after Gordon’s 61-yard run on the second play of their first possession in the third quarter, converting on fourth down inside the 5 before Gordon scored UW’s first touchdown on a 2-yard run.
In the fourth quarter, however, UW wasted a 31-yard run by Gordon to the Wildcats’ 45. A holding penalty and a delay of game flag pushed UW out of field goal range.
“They kept catching me,” Gordon said. “I just felt the big runs, those are really momentum (changers). We’ve got to build off that. We’ve got build off the big runs and the explosive plays.”
The Badgers couldn’t force a single turnover against Northwestern, but they had chances.
UW junior cornerback Devin Gaulden dropped an interception on the second play of the game, and sophomore Sojourn Shelton couldn’t come down with a catchable ball on a third-and-goal that led to a Wildcats field goal.
Northwestern, meanwhile, turned its four interceptions into 10 points.
“They get two balls in the end zone and they pick ‘em both off,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “We get one in the end zone and we drop it. We have to be able to have turnovers in a game like this against good teams when it goes down to the wire.”
Wide receiver trouble
The Badgers looked to Kenzel Doe more often as they continued to search for a reliable No. 2 receiver behind Erickson.
The senior finished with 34 yards on four catches, including a 19-yard touchdown grab that cut the Badgers’ deficit to 20-14.
His production, however, was not enough to convince Andersen that UW’s receiving corps has taken a step forward.
“I don’t think anyone would argue anything different — we have not been able to find a second wide receiver,” Andersen said. “Our second wide receiver right now, it’s very simple — it’s (tight end) Sam (Arneson).
“They’re not always going to be wide open running down the middle of the field. You’ve got to catch contested balls. … We’ve got to get more play out of the wide receiver. Kids are trying, but we have to help them get there as coaches, also.”
Field position battle
Much of UW’s struggle to put points on the board may have come from its lack of good field position throughout Saturday’s loss.
The Badgers’ average drive began on their own 22, and they started four of their 12 drives inside their own 10-yard line.
“Their guy did a great job of punting the ball down in that position, and there were numerous times where we ended up getting backed up with a long field to go,” Andersen said. “The key there is, they moved the ball successfully on us. That was a good offensive performance for Northwestern and a poor defensive performance by the University of Wisconsin.”
Gordon’s 259 yards is the eighth-best single-game performance in UW history and the second-most by a Badgers player on the road (behind Ron Dayne’s 289 at Illinois on Nov. 23, 1996). ... Gordon was the first Northwestern opponent to rush for more than 200 yards since Mikel Leshoure of Illinois gained 330 on Nov. 20, 2010, when the teams met at Wrigley Field. ... His 61-yarder on his first carry of the third quarter upped his average on first attempts of the second half to 42.8 yards per carry this season. ... Doe’s touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was the first at UW on his 30th career catch. ... Northwestern is 2-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2000, when it won the conference title. ... This rivalry has turned into a standoff over the last 30 years. The teams are 12-12 since 1985 and 2-2 since 2003.