Football: Defense tames Taylor, Wisconsin rushing attack in upset win

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Football: Defense tames Taylor, Wisconsin rushing attack in upset win

Sophomore defensive back Travis Whillock tackles Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson during Northwestern's 31-17 win Saturday. Whillock and the defense contained the Badgers all game long.

Sophomore defensive back Travis Whillock tackles Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson during Northwestern's 31-17 win Saturday. Whillock and the defense contained the Badgers all game long.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Sophomore defensive back Travis Whillock tackles Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson during Northwestern's 31-17 win Saturday. Whillock and the defense contained the Badgers all game long.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Sophomore defensive back Travis Whillock tackles Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson during Northwestern's 31-17 win Saturday. Whillock and the defense contained the Badgers all game long.

Ella Brockway, Reporter

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Earlier this week, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald called Wisconsin’s rushing attack a “three-headed monster:” While Heisman Trophy favorite Jonathan Taylor and his 1,000-plus yard season commanded most of the pregame headlines, the Badgers had four running backs who each averaged more than six yards per carry, leading the nation’s fourth-best rushing offense.

On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats tamed the beast.

NU (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) held Wisconsin’s Big Ten-best rushing offense to just 150 total yards — its lowest of the season — en route to claiming a huge 31-17 win over the Badgers (5-3, 3-2).

“They’ve got really good backs, so I don’t want to minimize their players, but we kept it inside and in front, which we hadn’t done earlier in the year,” Fitzgerald said. “We did a better job of that (and) we did a pretty good pass rush with our front four.”

The Cats limited Taylor to just 46 rushing yards on the afternoon. Taylor hadn’t rushed for less than 100 yards this season before the game; he also fumbled twice on Saturday and managed only two carries for more than his season average of 6.5 yards per run.

When the ground game struggles forced the Badgers to throw the ball, NU’s defense didn’t give up the pressure. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan — a sophomore with only five career completions before Saturday, filling in for injured regular starter Alex Hornibrook — went 17-for-26 on the day, but threw only six of those 17 completions for more than 10 yards.

“Wisconsin is a heavy run team, so I knew that they were going to pound it, pound it, and eventually take shots downfield,” senior cornerback Montre Hartage said. “We just knew for the secondary we had to always stay on our toes and not get too comfortable … We came out and imposed our will.”

Hartage shined in the secondary, most notably with a key pass breakup to deny Wisconsin’s advances on fourth down with less than five minutes to play. Senior linebacker Nate Hall returned from an injury, bringing staunch veteran play to NU’s front seven and strengthening the rush defense.

Fitzgerald acknowledged that the defense still has room to grow, but praised its youngest contributors for their performances in the win. He highlighted sophomore defensive end Earnest Brown, who had an important sack for loss late in the fourth quarter, and sophomore safety J.R. Pace, who recorded six tackles in the win.

“We’ve got some inexperienced guys playing, some guys that are stepping up into roles that they weren’t expected to or weren’t in last year,” sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “We’re just fixing the one-man breakdowns that lead to explosive plays and building trust within everyone on the defense.”

Email: ellabrockway2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ellabrockway

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