EVANSTON, Ill. — As he walked off the field Saturday afternoon, University of Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen put his arm around Kenzel Doe and leaned in to say something to the senior wide receiver.
“He just told me, ‘Keep your head up,’ ” Doe said. “He said it’s a long season. He’s going to do whatever he’s got to do to get us going and get us back to where we want to be. ‘Just keep your head up and keep fighting.’ ”
The company line from the No. 17 Badgers was a very positive one even after they got off to an ugly start in Big Ten Conference play with a 20-14 loss to Northwestern at Ryan Field.
Perhaps UW can learn a lesson from the Wildcats (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten), who have wiped out a horrible start to the season by winning three consecutive games and sit atop the West Division standings.
Leading the way for Northwestern Saturday were a pair of freshmen: Safety Godwin Igwebuike finished with three interceptions, while tailback Justin Jackson carried the ball 33 times for 162 yards.
The defeat dropped the Badgers to 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten.
“Our opportunities were there and we didn’t take advantage of them,” Andersen said. “But I’m proud of these kids. I’m proud to be their coach and I believe in them. We’ll come back, and we bounce back, and we’re going to find a way to be a good football team and hopefully continue our way to be a great football team as the year goes on.”
Andersen is going to have a difficult time convincing anybody outside his locker room of that after the Badgers (3-2, 0-1) wasted a special performance from junior tailback Melvin Gordon, who rushed for a career-high 259 yards.
UW’s passing game was awful, with juniors Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave combining to go 12-for-29 for 138 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions.
McEvoy was 4-for-10 for 24 yards with one interception before being benched late in the first half with UW trailing 10-0.
Andersen said he was searching for a spark for the offense when he inserted Stave for the first time this season. Stave finished 8-for-19 for 114 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw three interceptions.
McEvoy and Stave each threw a pick in the end zone. McEvoy’s came on UW’s opening series of the game, when he lobbed an ill-advised throw off his back foot under heavy pressure and Igwebuike came up with the ball over intended target Alex Erickson.
Stave’s came midway through the fourth quarter with UW trailing 20-7. The Badgers had a first-and-goal at the Northwestern 3 when Stave rolled to his right and forced a pass to Erickson that went right to Igwebuike.
“The turnover in the red zone, that can’t happen,” Stave said. “That’s on me. I was trying to do too much. I was trying to force it. First-and-3 from the 3-yard line, you’ve just got to throw that ball away.”
While Northwestern forced four turnovers, UW’s defense came up empty in that department. Cornerbacks Devin Gaulden and Sojourn Shelton had interceptions slip through their fingers early in the game.
“We didn’t get the turnovers and they did,” Andersen said, “and that was a big part of it.”
Worse yet, the Badgers tackling was poor and Jackson took advantage en route to a career day.
“It appears to me without seeing the tape that’s the worst tackling game we’ve had this season,” Andersen said.
Even with all of its struggles, UW still had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
A questionable holding penalty on UW senior right guard Kyle Costigan wiped out a 15-yard run by Gordon to the 2, and the Badgers eventually had to punt.
The Badgers’ next drive ended with Stave’s interception in the end zone, but the defense forced a three-and-out and UW needed only two plays to cover 43 yards and cut its deficit to six points with 4 minutes, 16 seconds remaining on Doe’s first career touchdown reception.
Andersen called his final timeout with 3:29 left and Northwestern facing a third-and-3 from its own 41, but Wildcats junior superback Dan Vitale came out of the backfield and caught a 15-yard pass to move the chains.
By the time UW got the ball back, it had 80 yards to cover in only 33 seconds. On the second play of the series, Stave was intercepted by Igwebuike.
UW returns home to face Illinois next week and Andersen essentially admitted that it’s back to the drawing board for the offense. The biggest question is who will be quarterback, and Andersen acknowledge both could play as UW tries to take advantage of McEvoy’s strength as a runner and Stave’s ability to keep defenses honest with deep throws.
“I think we can be a great team,” UW senior right tackle Rob Havenstein said. “We’ve got a lot of fire, a lot of fight. It’s not like we rolled over and played dead today.
“I’m not worried about the confidence being shaken and everyone hanging their heads. Obviously, it hurts. It sucks now. It should. It should suck. I’m beating myself up more than anyone right now. But when it comes down to Monday, it’s a new week.”
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