BY JEFF BERNIER
In their most important matchup of the year, the Wisconsin Badgers (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) did not bring their best stuff Saturday to Camp Randall Stadium when they faced off against the Northwestern Wildcats (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten). The Badgers turned the ball over a season high five times. Most of them were also absolute momentum killers. And in the end, the Badgers just could not overcome all of their mistakes, falling in a heartbreaker to the Wildcats on senior day, 13-7.
Several questionable calls by the referees also hurt the home team tremendously. A punt returned for a touchdown was called back in the third quarter and a game winning touchdown with 24 seconds remaining was also negated.
The Badgers were clearly the better team on Saturday, but they simply beat themselves. Credit is due for the Northwestern defense, who contained the Badgers formidable run game, that featured Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, and Taiwan Deal who were all available for just the second game this season.
The Badgers first half went something like this. They would punt four times, lose a fumble, and throw an interception. Wisconsin would total just 50 yards of offense in the first half as Northwestern took a 10-0 lead into intermission, behind a Justin Jackson eight yard scoring run, and a Jack Mitchell 35 yard field goal.
It was the Wildcats defense who stopped the run in this game. The Badgers were held to -19 yards rushing in the first 30 minutes. Joel Stave was credited with -46 yards rushing in the half, completing negating the 27 positive yards gained by Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal. It was the worst half of football running the ball in recent memory for Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Badgers defense, not to be outdone on their own turf by a hungry Northwestern Wildcats defense, made one of the biggest plays of the game coming out of the halftime break. Facing a fourth and 1 from the Wisconsin 35 yard line, the Badgers defense was able to win the battle up front and stuff Warren Long for a one yard loss, resulting in a turnover on downs.
The Badgers would follow immediately with a 5 play 64 yard touchdown drive, making it 10-7 Wildcats. Joel Stave made two perfect throws to Jazz Peavy, one for 16 yards and one gem for 42 yards that put the Badgers inside the Wildcats 10 yard line. Corey Clement would go beast-mode from there, dragging a defender over the goal line for the Badgers first touchdown on the day.
Following a Northwestern punt, senior Alex Erickson would field it on a few hops and take it all the way to the house, sending Camp Randall Stadium into pandemonium as the Badgers took the lead. But not so fast … The referees would call the play back, citing an illegal fair catch motion by Erickson. It was a strange call, as replays showed Erickson to simply be waving off his teammates as he waited for the football.
The blown call negated the electric play, and the Badgers would later punt on the drive. It was a huge call, as the Badgers offense was stifled the rest of the afternoon. The Badgers appeared to be overcome with frustration as a result of the call back.
Despite the bevy of turnovers, and missed opportunities, the Badgers were driving for the win with less than two minutes to play. Stave would complete a pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli over the middle for 22 yards to the Wildcats 1 yard line. The play was initially ruled a touchdown but replays showed his knee was down just short of the goal line.
On first and goal, Stave connected with Jazz Peavy in the right flat of the end zone as Peavy tumbled to the ground. It appeared Northwestern’s valiant effort would fall just short. However, upon review, the touchdown was overturned as the referees said the receiver did not complete the catch process as he went to the ground.
A controversial play call made famous by NFL stars Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson was the final nail in the coffin for the Badgers. An untimely sack on Stave lead to a quick spike, setting up a fourth and goal.
With Stave hurt on the sack. Bart Houston was summoned with the game on the line. It appeared he had Tanner McEvoy who dived for the Houston throw over the middle, but the ball was just overthrown, falling haplessly incomplete.
Northwestern did outgain the Badgers with 211 yards of offense to 205 for Wisconsin. The Badgers finished the day with negative 26 yards rushing, easily their worst rush attack in any game in recent memory.
The Badgers, who have struggled at times on third down, finished the afternoon just 2-13, compounding their inability to keep drives alive versus a motivated Wildcats defense.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for just 61 yards. The player of the game for the Wildcats was running back Justin Jackson, who carved up the Badgers top ranked defense to the tune of 139 yards and a touchdown.
The most important statistic for Northwestern was the turnover margin. Northwestern did not turn the ball over once versus the Badgers turnover machining defense.
Stave was clutch down the stretch, but the sack taken under 20 seconds sealed the Badgers fate. Stave finished the game with 231 yards and two interceptions. Clement, the Badgers top rusher, gained just 24 yards on his 10 carries.
It was always going to be a tall order, but with the loss Saturday, the Badgers are officially eliminated from Big Ten contention. They will instead turn their attention to next Saturday will the will head to Minnesota to face a Golden Gophers team one win away from Bowl eligibility.
The Axe will also be on the line. That game kicks off at 2:30 pm Central.