EVANSTON, Ill. — A disappointing University of Wisconsin football season morphed into something even worse Saturday at Ryan Field.
Northwestern’s 31-17 victory felt secure long before the final whistle, when Wildcat fans rushed the field in celebration. As the game slipped further and further away from the 20th-ranked Badgers (5-3, 3-2) throughout the second half, so did what remains of their preseason goals.
The team ranked No. 4 in August won’t only wildly miss on the College Football Playoff, but its chances of a third straight Big Ten West title now appear bleak with four weeks of the season still remaining.
“I’m shocked,” wide receiver Kendric Pryor said when asked of his team’s 5-3 record. “I know we can play better than what we have in our losses. I just know we’re a better team than that. The mistakes we make, we’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Wisconsin State Journal reporter Jason Galloway collected some of the best tweets after the Wisconsin Badgers fell to the Northwestern Wildcat…
Those mistakes were plentiful for the Badgers on Saturday. They lost three fumbles in their own half of the field that led to 17 Northwestern points and committed two fourth-down penalties that extended Wildcat touchdown drives.
Northwestern’s struggling running game, one of the country’s worst at 78.1 yards per game entering the weekend, posted a season-high 182 yards. That number shockingly out-gained UW’s 165, as the Badgers’ offense never found a rhythm in backup quarterback Jack Coan’s first career start.
“I was proud of the effort of a lot of our guys, but flat out we need to play better football,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “We’ve just got to play better football, and that starts with me as a coach and our coaches. We’ve got guys putting it out there, but we’ve got to play smarter and better football to give yourself a chance.”
The Wisconsin Badgers fell to the Northwestern Wildcats, 31-17, on Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.
Safety Evan Bondoc’s interception set up an early touchdown for UW before Northwestern scored 31 of the game’s next 34 points — the last of those coming on Isaiah Bowser’s 2-yard run that handed the Wildcats a 31-10 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
Minutes before Bowser broke the game open, Coan, who completed 20-of-31 passes for 158 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, let the ball slip from his hands while scrambling — leading to a recovery by linebacker Nate Hall at UW’s 13-yard line.
Jonathan Taylor’s fumble on his own 15-yard line late in the first half after an awkward handoff exchange with Coan led to Northwestern’s first lead of the day at 14-7, and Taylor’s second fumble two drives before Coan’s helped the Wildcats add 3 more points.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson completed 17-of-30 passes for 167 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions but made crucial plays when the Wildcats needed them most.
His 5-yard touchdown run to take that 14-7 lead came on third-and-goal. He stepped up to avoid pressure from outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and made inside linebacker Ryan Connelly miss on his way to the end zone. Thorson also scrambled for 27 yards on third-and-5 during Northwestern’s second-half field goal drive.
“Heck, we think of him as a passer, and he’s a really good quarterback,” Chryst said, “but the biggest play might have been with his legs.”
The Badgers were set to get the ball back midway through the third quarter down just 14-10, but true freshman Jack Sanborn’s roughing the punter penalty kept Northwestern on the field. What should have ended as a three-and-out turned into an 11-play, 70-yard touchdown drive — finished off by an acrobatic, 24-yard grab in the back of the end zone by wide receiver Kyric McGowan.
UW fumbled on two of its next three drives and suddenly found itself down 31-10 and on the verge of its first loss to a Big Ten West opponent since 2015. Coan’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Pryor with 8 minutes remaining gave the Badgers a sliver of hope, but Northwestern came up with a fourth-down stop on UW’s next possession before running the clock out.
The Badgers’ loss at Michigan two weeks ago marked the first time since 2010 that they lost a regular-season conference game by more than 7 points. UW’s now done that twice in three weeks to nosedive one of the most promising seasons in program history.
The Big Ten West isn’t completely out of reach for the Badgers, but it will be soon without dramatic improvements over the next couple weeks.
“We’re going to be our biggest critics,” fullback Alec Ingold said. “We wanted everything and more that anyone could have ever predicted for us. It’s tough to kind of see a loss like this really hamper all those chances, but at the same time, for our own sake, we really just need to focus on being the best team we can be.”