Post-Game Analysis: Wisconsin
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, the game went pretty much as expected given NU's performance last week and how Wisconsin has fared as of late as the Wisconsin Badgers (11-1, 7-1) clinched their share of the Big Ten title and a likely Rose Bowl berth with a 70-23 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats (7-5, 3-5).  Not only did the 'Cats never get much of anything going in their favor, but they turned the ball over a whopping 7 times, leading to 28 Badger points on the day, something that you can't do when expecting to win any game, let alone one in Madison against a team looking to lock up a conference championship.

Now, the 'Cats will await their bowl destination and, in the mean time, will have a chance to get valuable extra practice time for those young players who will play an integral part in trying to break Northwestern's 62 year bowl drought.

First Half Summary

To say that the game started off poorly for the 'Cats would be putting it lightly.  Northwestern elected to kick to start the game and subsequently allowed the Badgers to drive 74 yards in just 5 plays to take an early 7-0 lead, from which Wisconsin would never look back.  And, like last week, the NU offense responded in the worst way possible: by turning the ball over.  This time it was usually-reliable WR Jeremy Ebert who had an Evan Watkins pass hit him in the chest, only to bobble the ball and leave it ripe for the pickings, which is exactly what the Badgers did.  For one of just a few times all day, the NU defense held Wisconsin to a punt, but in the end the D just didn't perform well at all and eventually caved in and caved in often.

It's just not worth detailing each and every Northwestern possession, but let's just say it was feast or famine.  Although the 'Cats didn't punt at all in the first half, they did turn the ball over 5 times, which certainly put NU so far behind the 8-ball that there was basically no chance for a recovery.  The NU offense, featuring a slew of freshmen in the backfield, actually performed rather well minus those costly turnovers.  They put up 10 points in the first half, while speedy return man and true freshman Venric Mark finally found paydirt as he took a kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown to add another 7 for the 'Cats in the first half.  Mark would go on to set a Northwestern record for kickoff return yards in a game, breaking a record that Jason Wright reached in 2002.

But on the other side of the ball, things were very ugly: Wisconsin was up 14-3 at the end of the first quarter but then did whatever they wanted in the second quarter, scoring TDs on 5 consecutive drives in that quarter (eventually scoring touchdowns on 7 consecutive drives spanning into the second half).  Not only could the 'Cats not stop them on the ground, but Scott Tolzien was his usually efficient self through the air as he threw for 230 yards and 4 TDs.  The NU D was also unable to stop Tolzien from staying ahead of Dan Persa in completion percentage, as he finished the day at 74.29% on the season (he had a completion rate of 78.9% on the day) with just the bowl game remaining; Persa is sitting at 73.51%.

Second Half Summary

With Northwestern all but out of it at halftime, it was all about getting valuable reps for those young players and essentially surviving the game in the second half.  Despite the lopsided score, Wisconsin did essentially all they could not to run up the score.  Wisconsin's final pass attempt came midway through the third quarter and they only threw 19 passes on the day as they stuck to the run game the vast majority of the time, ending with 54 rushes and averaging an impressive 6.1 yards per carry.  NU just never did anything to help themselves on defense and basically let the Badgers continue on their offensive tear.

On offense, the 'Cats put together a nice drive late in the third quarter, moving quickly down the field and capping it with a nice Watkins to Drake Dunsmore TD pass, the first of Watkins' young collegiate career (he also had a rushing TD in the first half).  But, the fact is that it was too little too late as they were in a momentous 46 point hole at the time (and it certainly didn't help to have the ensuing extra point attempt blocked on what looked to be a low kick by Stefan Demos).  The offense was promising at times and the Wildcats did end up with 4.6 yards per carry on the ground in a rather solid effort; unfortunately Northwestern just wasn't in much of a position to use their running game at all.

In the end, Wisconsin took a series of kneel downs inside NU's 5 yard line to end the game and claim their share of the 2010 Big Ten championship and a likely berth in the Rose Bowl assuming they keep their lead over Ohio State and Michigan State in the final BCS standings next week (a safe assumption given the on-field results).

Player of the Game

Wisconsin RB Montee Ball (20 rushes for 178 yards, 4 TDs)  I gave the nod to Ball, but the fact is that it could have gone to almost anyone on the Badgers: Tolzien obviously had a very efficient day, and the offensive line of Wisconsin dominated all day long.  And the defense was no slouch, either, with JJ Watt getting a sack, 2 forced fumbles, 3 QB hurries, and a blocked kick on top of his 7 tackles: obviously an impressive day.  It was clear that Wisconsin wanted that game and had the talent and effort to dominate from start to finish.

What Happened

"In order for Northwestern to pull off this momentous upset, they will need to play a perfect game..."  Needless to say, losing the turnover battle 0-7 is far from playing a perfect game, and the game would have been MUCH closer if the 'Cats had at least taken care of the football.

"It will be interesting to see how true freshman QB Kain Colter performs..."  Northwestern had Colter in their game plan and it was clear that they had a preset plan to use him during the game.  Unfortunately, it seemed as though shuttling him in and out of the game ruined some of the momentum that the NU offense had going at times.  He can clearly make some things happen with is feet, and NU eventually made some wise decisions by allowing each QB to have a drive to themselves.

"Last week, the 'Cats were seemingly unable to stop Illinois on the ground, and if they put together a similar performance, look for Wisconsin to be well on their way to surpassing the 83 points they put on Indiana two weeks ago.
"  And that they did as they successfully ran both early and often and NU seemed to be unable to stop them all day long.

"The 'Cats would benefit greatly from somehow getting Wisconsin out of their game: that means forcing them to pass first instead of run first."
  That obviously did not happen as Wisconsin jumped out to a 7-0 lead early and almost continually handed the ball back to the Badgers as they never had to get out of their offensive comfort zone.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

WR/KR/PR Venric Mark (281 all-purpose yards including 273 kick return yards and a 94 yard return for TD)  Although he did make some mistakes (including a muffed punt very late in the game), Mark finally had a chance to show off his great speed as he took a kick to the house for the first score of his young career.  He averaged 30.3 yards per kick return and is definitely a nice weapon for the 'Cats and should have a fruitful career.

What to Work on

Defense:  Yes, it hurts not to have Persa and with him not out there sustaining drives, the defense has definitely been under additional pressure as of late, but the Wildcat offense has completely imploded over the past 2 games.  It's not like there have been significant injuries to slow them down, and it's not like they are that young at this point (especially with a couple of senior linebackers and another on the DL).  The NU defense hasn't been taking the right angles and has been just plain missing tackles like crazy.  DC Mike Hankwitz has quite a challenge in store to try and right the ship for the bowl game and to get this unit ready for 2011.

Young Guys on Offense:  Watkins, Colter, Adonis Smith, and, Mike Trumpy (who should hopefully be available for the bowl game) are the future of the NU offense and will have plenty of practice reps to improve over the next month or so.  They were pretty much thrown into the fire this season and they have all shown flashes of promise, so it's up to them and the coaching staff in order to maximize their potential both this year and in the future.

Bowl Preparation:  Northwestern under Coach Fitz has done an admirable job preparing for bowl games, going to OT in their last two games against heavy favorites and having a chance to win both games.  Hopefully the staff can repeat those efforts and can come through with that long awaited victory this time around against what should be a beat-able opponent.

Random Observations

Third Down Conversions:  On defense, the 'Cats did alright, allowing Wisconsin to convert 5-of-11 opportunities, but on offense NU just hasn't been the same after losing Persa, converting just 4-of-12 third downs.

Turnovers:  For the first game this season, Northwestern failed to generate a takeaway.  And, to add insult to injury, the 'Cats had their worst game of the year in terms of giveaways with 7.

Demos:  The NU placekicker hit a season-long 47-yarder to up his season FG average to 0.682 and he now has 33 made FGs in his career, putting him into a 5th place tie on the Northwestern all-time career FG list along side his predecessor, Amado Villarreal.

Bowl Positioning

As always, check out the HailToPurple Bowl Page for all the details.

The 'Cats certainly didn't help their cause with the loss and the showing on the field.  A trip to Dallas for the TicketCity Bowl is almost a certainly since, thankfully, wins by Ohio State and Michigan State virtually guarantee that a second Big Ten team will reach a BCS bowl game.  That translates to everyone else essentially moving up one bowl spot, which will keep Big Ten teams out of Detroit this season.

Now NU fans must hope that Illinois loses at Fresno State next Saturday (which would move them to 6-6 overall) in order to have a legitimate shot at the Texas Bowl.  Even so, with Illinois' head-to-head win over the 'Cats, it is likely that Texas will take the Illini since there is no longer a restriction forcing bowls to take 7-5 or better teams before 6-6 teams.

As noted on the Bowl Page, though, the Big Ten already has 4 7-5 teams (of which NU is one) and could have another if Illinois wins.  It's clear that the conference will get 2 teams into BCS games (most likely Wisconsin and OSU), with the other co-champion (likely MSU) heading to the Capital One Bowl.  The rest is really a big jumble that will likely come down to fanbase support and momentum at the end of the season (both subjective battles that NU will likely lose).  For now, it's all about waiting until those bowl announcements on the afternoon of Sunday, December 5.

Final Thought

It was indeed an ugly game that wasn't unexpected but still not satisfying.  Now Northwestern has a prime opportunity to move forward by getting valuable practice reps for those young players as they work to try and get that potentially huge bowl win.  While the offense showed some flashes and should be better after some additional work is under their collective belt, the defense just has to plain play better.  So, it's practice away as the 'Cats wait for that bowl destination.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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