Many may find it difficult to describe the University of Wisconsin football team’s performance Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium as a bounce-back effort.
An ugly showing against the Big Ten’s last-place team, albeit in a victory, likely won’t calm the panic induced by the Badgers’ underachieving season.
Not once, however, did UW appear in danger of falling on the wrong end of an unthinkable upset in its 31-17 win over Rutgers. After two dismal losses over the previous three weeks wrecked many of their preseason aspirations, the Badgers aren’t too worried about how Saturday’s display played out — as long as it ended in their favor.
“Especially after last week, you just need to win,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. “You need to win. Obviously, you hope to polish it up, and we’ll polish it up, but the win’s the most important thing, and we did that.”
While the final numbers may not bear it out, the Badgers’ defense — with Dixon and defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk back from three-game absences — made sure an uninspiring performance still led to a comfortable win that made UW bowl eligible for the 17th straight year.
Rutgers (1-8, 0-6), one of the nation’s worst offenses, matched its highest point total since Week 1 and put up its third-highest yardage total of the season. The Scarlet Knights didn’t find the end zone until less than 9 minutes remaining, though, and 143 of their 333 yards came in a non-competitive fourth quarter.
When UW’s offense came out flat, its defense made sure the Badgers (6-3, 4-2) weren’t going to find themselves on upset alert.
“I think we really came to play today on defense,” UW inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “Just holding them to what we held them for those first three quarters was huge, and it set up our offense a couple times.”
The Badgers made their first drive look easy, going 65 yards on six plays and taking a 7-0 lead on Jonathan Taylor’s 5-yard touchdown run. The rest of the half became a struggle.
After a poor decision from quarterback Alex Hornibrook led to an interception, UW got the ball back and moved 78 yards on 18 plays — only to kick a 32-yard field goal and extend its lead to 10-0 with 14 minutes left in the first half.
Hornibrook, who finished 7-of-16 passing for 92 yards and left at halftime with a head injury, threw his second pick with 6:39 left in the half when defensive back Saquan Hampton jumped in front of a Danny Davis out route.
That set Rutgers up with great field position on the UW 34, but the Badgers forced a three-and-out before Andrew Van Ginkel blocked a 45-yard field goal attempt, which Dixon recovered and returned to the Scarlet Knights’ 41.
UW couldn’t take advantage of its favorable field position either, punting on fourth-and-5 from the 36. The Badgers had one more opportunity to add to their lead before halftime, but Hornibrook took a sack in the final minute at his own 33.
Rutgers averaged just 3.6 yards per play in its scoreless first half, punted on five of six possessions and went three-and-out three times.
“The offense just isn’t always going to be rolling. That’s just how football works,” UW nose tackle Bryson Williams said. “But if you can hold the other team to zero points and nothing’s hurt, we felt really good about that. The defense was fired up that we could get those guys a couple three-and-outs and give it right back to the offense and let them do whatever they need to do.”
UW’s pass rush came to life for the first time in many weeks, constantly delivering hits to freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski, who finished 20-of-39 passing for 261 yards with a touchdown.
Much of that success came from the Badgers’ season-low 72 rushing yards allowed, something that helped put the Scarlet Knights in third-and-6 or longer on 12 occasions.
“I think the key thing was being able to stop them on first and second down, getting them into third-and-long,” Van Ginkel said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that we haven’t seen in the past. … When we can stop the run and force them into those situations, we’ve got some good pass rushers that can get to him. We’ve just got to put ourselves in that situation more often.”
Quarterback Jack Coan, who made his first career start last week at Northwestern when Hornibrook was out with a concussion, played the second half with Hornibrook out. UW began by running 13 straight times, though, which led to two more Taylor touchdowns.
He scored from 38 yards out on the Badgers’ first possession and added an 18-yard touchdown the next time out, extending UW’s lead to 24-3 late in the third quarter. He finished with 208 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries.
Rutgers finally found the end zone with 8:14 remaining when running back Jonathan Hilliman capped off a 57-yard drive with a 1-yard score, but the Badgers put the game away with Coan’s 11-yard pass to Davis with 3:37 left. Coan finished 5-of-7 passing for 64 yards and a touchdown.
“Our plan was to go out there and take care of business, and I feel like we did what we needed to do,” Loudermilk said. “A win is a win. Those are hard to come by. But at the same time, there are a lot of places as a team where we can improve and we’re going to try to improve.”