Football: Long passing plays break Northwestern’s back at Wisconsin


Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

Trae Williams slouches. The sophomore cornerback forced a fumble in Northwestern’s loss to No. 10 Wisconsin.

Tim Balk, Gameday Editor


MADISON, Wis. — Northwestern’s defense executed a familiar formula for a full half Saturday.

Against a Badgers program known for a ferocious rushing attack but often beset by inconsistencies in its passing game, the Wildcats loaded the box and controlled the line of scrimmage. NU took a 10-7 lead into the half, and the game carried echoes of the team’s last meeting here, when Wisconsin finished with minus-26 rushing yards and the Cats won 13-7 in 2015.

In the third quarter, the game went off script.

Facing a third-and-three on their opening drive of the second half, the No. 10 Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) unleashed a devastating 61-yard pitch and catch from quarterback Alex Hornibrook to receiver Quintez Cephus. Cephus, “wide-ass open,” in the words of coach Pat Fitzgerald, settled under the bomb before getting dragged down at the 11-yard line. Wisconsin scored on the next play to take a lead it did not relinquish.

Senior safety Godwin Igwebuike chalked the 61-yard bomb up to miscommunication between himself and sophomore cornerback Trae Williams on a play Fitzgerald said the Cats (2-2, 0-1) practiced this week.

“Just got to have better communication,” Igwebuike said. “You never know when they’re going to hit you with something deep, so that’s definitely something we have to work to improve on.”

The next time on the field, Hornibrook and the Badgers’ offense again struck quickly, with a 32-yard completion to Danny Davis that led to another touchdown two plays later. Suddenly, Wisconsin held a 21-10 advantage over NU, and a low-scoring game had broken open.

Hornibrook, a sophomore who passed for more than 200 yards just once in Big Ten play a year ago, tossed for 116 yards in the third quarter alone. That the Cats generally held tough against the run-focused Badgers, who finished with 109 rushing yards, did not end up mattering. Neither did NU’s three forced turnovers.

Wisconsin finished with 306 yards in the game, its smallest output since Michigan topped the Badgers 14-7 on the first day of October last year. But NU’s offense experienced lengthy dry stretches, as junior quarterback Clayton Thorson was battered to the tune of eight sacks, and the Cats could not overcome their third-quarter defensive glitches in the eventual 33-24 loss.

“Our guys fit well, I think we tackled pretty well,” Fitzgerald said of his team’s success stopping Wisconsin’s rushing attack Saturday. “(Wisconsin) did a nice job of getting a couple big shots down the field on us.”

This time in Madison, those big shots made the difference, ensuring the Cats fell short of a repeat of 2015.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @timbalk