Stalled offense dooms NU

Tania Ganguli

MADISON, Wis. — Rays of sunlight danced between the scattered clouds above Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday morning and the clouds parted for a moment in the third quarter and lit up the field as Northwestern’s Noah Herron ran into the end zone.

That touchdown was the Wildcats’ second in fewer than two minutes, and NU was mounting a comeback in front of the capacity crowd of 82,468 after being shut out for most of three quarters.

“I was on the sideline telling everyone we’re going to win this game,” Herron said. “They were playing not-to-lose football, and we were playing to-win football.”

But the sun didn’t shine on NU enough.

The Cats took two quarters to get into a rhythm against No. 6 Wisconsin, but their effort came too late. They were unable to keep the momentum on their side and lost 24-12.

NU stopped Wisconsin near midfield on the drive after NU’s second touchdown, but then the problems started. The Cats started the drive on their own 20 and finished it on their own 13.

Tackle Trai Essex’s hold at the line of scrimmage started the backward progression. An unsuccessful pass attempt, a failed quarterback draw and a sack left the Cats with a fourth-and-29 and no chance.

“You cannot have zero or negative yardage plays against this team,” NU coach Randy Walker said.

The Badgers (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) scored 24 unanswered points until NU (3-4, 2-2) scored its first touchdown on a 29-yard strike from quarterback Brett Basanez to receiver Mark Philmore with 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

“It took us a half to get our feet underneath us,” Walker said.

The Cats failed to capitalize on several early chances. The defense held off the Badgers for the first 10 minutes. But every time NU stopped Wisconsin, the Badgers bit back.

Early in the first quarter with Wisconsin up 3-0, David Thompson sacked Badgers’ quarterback John Stocco and forced a fumble that Colby Clark recovered at Wisconsin’s 33. The Cats had good field positioning, but two plays later quarterback Brett Basanez threw a pass directly into Wisconsin linebacker Dontez Sanders’ arms.

Soon the defense entered what NU linebacker Tim McGarigle called a “lull” from the middle of the second quarter until the middle of the third.

During that time, Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis scored two touchdowns. His first was a seven-yard run toward the end of the first half, when he dragged three NU defenders into the end zone with him. The second touchdown was a one-yard rush, capping off a dominating drive.

Defensive tackle Barry Cofield said the Cats’ defense wore down the Badgers as the game progressed. The Badgers didn’t score after Davis’ touchdown with just less than 10 minutes left in the third quarter.

Although Wisconsin defensive ends Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh didn’t play because of injury, the Cats could not generate enough offense to win.

Special teams also created a major problem for NU.

Special teams have been struggling all season, but the passing game, which previously had averaged 265.3 yards per contest, had its own problems.

Receivers couldn’t hold onto several passes, and Basanez, who has played with poise and confidence all season, looked nervous.

The Badgers’ defense created some problems, but Basanez created his own problems as he forced the ball into double coverage on several occasions.

“Their defense is a rolling barrel of butcher knives,” Walker said. “They are flying around getting after you, and they’re very tough.

“You’ve got to run every inch you get.”

One player who did that was running back Noah Herron.

Herron rushed for 100 yards for the third consecutive game and became the first player to accomplish the feat against Wisconsin since Iowa’s Fred Russell did at the end of last year.

But Herron saw the bigger picture after the game.

“The opportunity to win the Big Ten was in our hands, and we let it slip away,” he said. “We aren’t controlling our own destiny right now, we need teams to lose. We had control, and now it’s not so much in our hands anymore.”

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected]

Saturday

NU 12

Wis 24