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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: Northwestern’s stifling defense silences Wisconsin crowd in 24-10 road victory

Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer
Senior linebacker Xander Mueller tackles Wisconsin wide receiver Will Pauling. Mueller tallied six tackles Saturday.

MADISON, Wis. —  Moments before Northwestern’s offense retook the field to begin fourth quarter action against Wisconsin, the Camp Randall Stadium speakers blared House of Pain’s “Jump Around,”  sending spectators into a frenzy that seemed to seismically shake the stadium’s press box Saturday.

While the home fans immersed themselves in the madness, the Badgers (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) solemnly stared onto the turf, attempting to escape a three-touchdown hole.

Just one sideline over — but seemingly worlds apart — the Wildcats’ (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) defense brazenly beckoned back toward the hosts, dancing and jumping in pure jubilation. Interim head coach David Braun said the moment encapsulated joy through battle.

“‘Jump Around’ is one of those iconic things in college football — I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t playing at lunch (and) at practice throughout the week,” Braun said. 

Less than five minutes later, senior defensive back Garnett Hollis Jr. recovered Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai’s fumble, all but clinching NU’s eventual 24-10 victory. The stands, once packed with red, expeditiously emptied and left a silent silver stretch of barren bleachers in their stead.

The Badgers began the game on the front foot, as Mordecai connected with wide receiver Vinny Anthony II for a 35-yard first-drive bomb and appeared on the doorstep of Saturday’s initial touchdown.

Instead, sophomore linebacker Kenny Soares Jr. giftwrapped the perfect birthday present for his father, breaching Wisconsin’s protection and bringing down Mordecai for his first career sack to force a Badger field goal.

“It felt amazing, honestly,” Soares said. “I told him his birthday present would be a sack and I got it for him.”

While graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant spearheaded the ’Cats to click on all cylinders during the first half, Braun’s defensive unit neutralized a threatening Wisconsin rushing attack and sealed off passing airways at a moment’s notice.

Unlike previous games, there wasn’t a star player who jumped out of the statsheet to account for lapses in certain facets of the group. Each player committed to their job, making the defensive whole supersede the simple sum of its parts. 

“The huge thing coach Braun preaches is 11-guys on the same page,” redshirt senior linebacker Bryce Gallagher said. “When we got all 11 executing the same call, we’re a really tough defense to move the ball on.”

Braun said he knew Wisconsin would move the ball, but his team bought in to the week’s game plan from the outset. NU may have surrendered several enemy encroachments into its defensive territory, but the ’Cats consistently stood tall with contributions at all ends of the lineup.

Sophomore safety Devin Turner packed his typical sideline-to-sideline punch, tallying a co-team high 10 total tackles alongside Gallagher. Although Turner was a step behind in pass coverage during Mordecai’s early 35-yard bomb, the Texas native kept his composure and delivered play-after-play Saturday.

And, when the proverbial heart and soul of the team’s secondary, senior safety Coco Azema, suffered a second-quarter lower-body injury, senior defensive back Jaheem Joseph stepped in instead. Serving a vital role with plenty of time remaining, Joseph seamlessly slotted into the sky team.

“Jaheem — (I’m) so stinkin’ proud — we talk all the time to own your role, but not necessarily be satisfied with your role,” Braun said. “Jaheem may not have been satisfied with his number of snaps over the course of the season, but he continued to own his role. … The way football is, opportunity is coming at some point — you better be ready.”

While the offense paced a 24-point first half, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian’s unit staunchly stalled and shifted the onus to the defense to keep the Badgers out of contention. When the opportunity arose, Braun’s well-oiled defensive group decisively delivered.

Aside from a last-ditch touchdown in the matchup’s final minute, NU built a forcefield-esque barricade that denied all access to its own endzone. For Braun, the collective group feeds off its own energy and improves each week. 

“This group just continues to respond, continues to root into their purpose, continues to play their tail off for one another — and it’s tangible,” Braun said. “You can put all the Powerpoints up on the screen, (but) this group leads with their actions.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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