The University of Wisconsin’s loss at Northwestern on Saturday wasn’t one in which the Badgers were overmatched. The Wildcats didn’t hold an overwhelming advantage anywhere on the field, and there were no gimmicks or surprises that stumped UW into rethinking its game plan.
Sure, Northwestern rushed for a season-high 182 yards, but it came on 49 attempts, a pedestrian 3.7 average. The Badgers, in fact, held the Wildcats to 4.42 yards per play — lower than any opponent this season other than New Mexico, who fielded a third-string quarterback for most of that game at Camp Randall Stadium.
And, yes, UW’s running game didn’t produce like one would hope (more on this later), but even that became skewed by a fourth quarter of playing catch-up.
This was a contest defined by game-changing mistakes, and the Badgers were the ones making them.
Fumbles and special teams penalties were the obvious setbacks. Northwestern scored 17 points off the three lost fumbles in UW territory, and Jack Sanborn’s roughing the punter penalty led to the Wildcats’ third-quarter touchdown that put them ahead 21-10. That accounts for all but one Northwestern score and alone could explain why this got out of hand in the way that it did.
The Badgers’ defense, however, made just as many mental errors Saturday. Watch Faion Hicks in the video below. He’s in man coverage against the motioning receiver on fourth down but let’s him run right on by.
Hicks keeps his eyes in the backfield and ignores his man as the play action comes to his side. While trying to recover, he pushes the receiver well before the ball arrives, gets called for pass interference and Northwestern scores three players later.
This is a classic example of trying to do someone else’s job. The mantra of this defense the last few years was “do your 1/11th.” If everyone simply does their job and only tires to be one of the defense’s 11 players, you don’t get breakdowns like this. UW’s defense from 2015-17 had plenty of talent, but it also made its name on being a disciplined group. If the Badgers got beat on a play, it typically happened because the offense was simply better. Opponents had to earn everything they got.
The following few plays aren’t as blatant as Hicks’ blunder, but they’re subtly of the same ilk. Watch outside linebacker Zack Baun on the first video (near side), safety Evan Bondoc on the second (near the top of the screen) and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (near side) on the third.
In the first, Baun rushes down the line towards the ball carrier. He can’t recover when Northwestern reverses it back to his side, breaking containment on what turns into a 21-yard gain.
Bondoc gets caught out of position in the second video, initially bolting towards Flynn Nagel’s bubble screen before realizing he’s responsible for the man streaking past him. This could have been a 62-yard touchdown if Clayton Thorson put the ball on target.
The third was the play that sealed the game for the Wildcats. Van Ginkel’s responsibility here is to set the edge and force the ball carrier towards his help on the inside. He does a great job at the point of attack but then makes an inside move that allows Isaiah Bowser to cut outside and convert the third-and-10.
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Badger defenses of the past weren’t perfect, of course, and these type of errors happen — particularly in the case of Baun, who made some huge plays in this game and sure isn’t the first person to be fooled by a reverse. The rate at which these mistakes are occurring, however, increased dramatically with so much turnover on that side of the ball from 2017.
As seems to have been the case with Hicks and Van Ginkel, many of these come down to trusting those around you — knowing that you may not make a particular play but, if you do your part, someone else will.
When things aren’t going well, players are more prone to break from that mentality and try to do too much. If the Badgers can rediscover that mindset, start living and dying by their 1/11th mantra again, it could serve as a good baseline moving forward.
— On the surface, Saturday’s rushing performance looked really rough. The Badgers finished with a season-low 165 yards, only 46 of which came from Jonathan Taylor.
When things didn’t go well, it was often because Northwestern sold out against the run and simply had more numbers than UW could block.
On both those plays above, there’s already eight or nine in the box before a safety crashes down right after the snap. The Badgers tried to keep the Wildcats honest on a few occasions — such as Kendric Pryor’s 15-yard end around to begin their second drive and the play-action deep shot to Aron Cruickshank on first down early in the second quarter — but UW’s downfield passing game wasn’t enough of a threat for Northwestern to back off.
As mentioned earlier, the Badgers’ yardage total also shrinks when needing to make up a three-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter. Taylor only carried the ball twice in the second half and 11 times total. Ultimately, though, UW finished with an average of more than 5 yards per carry for the fourth straight game.
The Badgers' offensive line has played extremely well since the bye week and also did a nice job protecting Coan on Saturday. I don’t think the group took the major step back in this game that many indicated on social media. Logan Bruss also looked solid in limited playing time, and it’ll be interesting to see how many snaps he earns at left tackle this week with Cole Van Lanen out.
Here are a few more notes after re-watching Saturday’s loss:
— Sanborn’s roughing the punter penalty really came back to bite the Badgers, but the reverse angle tells a different story than a true freshman making a boneheaded mistake.
That sure looks like an intentional trip. The Northwestern player sees two rushers coming at him and unnaturally leaves his leg extended far behind him while blocking Griffin Grady.
— It’s pretty clear at this point in the season that UW’s not going to get consistent pressure with a straight four-man rush.
Baun and Van Ginkel had a couple moments where they beat a tackle one-on-one to get to Thorson, most notably when Baun forced a fourth-down stop in the third quarter and Van Ginkel nearly came down with a sack on Thorson’s touchdown run late in the first half. On many more occasions, however, the Badgers were stuffed, giving Thorson plenty of time to throw.
— Northwestern entered Saturday’s game with one of the nation’s worst rushing offenses, and UW countered with an occasional 1-5-5 formation on third down (one defensive lineman, five linebackers, five defensive backs).
The results were mixed. Bondoc’s first-quarter interception off Ryan Connelly’s deflection came out of that formation, but Bowser ran for 7 yards on third-and-4 during Northwestern’s first touchdown drive the next time out — the first of three third-down conversions on the ground during that possession.