November 21, 2009

UW loses shootout in Evanston

EVANSTON - Wisconsin knew Northwestern was going to come out throwing in Saturday's Big Ten finale, but it probably did not expect the Wildcats to move the ball that easily through the air during its 33-31 win over the Badgers.

By the end, senior Northwestern Mike Kafka had thrown for 326 yards on 26-of-40 passing with two touchdowns. Though NU's offense had the Badger defense on its heels from the start, the game wasn't decided until the Northwestern defense sealed it with two big plays late in the fourth quarter.

With Scott Tolzien's touchdown pass to a wide-open Garrett Graham in the back of the end zone, Wisconsin had cut the NU lead to two points with just over 10 minutes to play.

From there, UW had three opportunities to move the ball into NU territory in order to set up a field goal for the lead and potential win.

A punt, fumble and interception later, the Badgers head back to Madison with a deflating loss.

"I think the big thing I told our guys," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following the loss. "You know the one thing about history is history needs to happen and the worst thing you can do is ignore history. So they have to learn from these mistakes, they have to learn why the game finished the way it did and hopefully it will be able to be a sounding board for our guys for next year in Big Ten play."

After the Badger defense stopped the hot Northwestern offense and forced a punt with a little over four minutes to play, it seemed like UW was setting up a dramatic finish. Instead, following a pass interference call that gave the Badgers new life, sophomore running back John Clay fumbled the opportunity away.

Inside Wildcat territory, the Badgers were facing third and one. Clay took the handoff from Tolzien, tried breaking off tackle, hurdled, was hit and lost the ball. Northwestern recovered.

"It was me just trying to fight for extra yards," Clay, who finished with 100 yards and a touchdown, said. "I wasn't holding the ball high and tight. I was just trying to fight and get the first down and let loose with the ball. I bumped into one of my guys and I dropped it.

I didn't have it high enough and I tried to jump over (Mickey Turner) at the same time so I could get the first down, but I ran into him."

Still, the Badgers had one final opportunity after burning their final two timeouts during Northwestern's final offensive possession. After the Wildcats were forced to punt, the Badgers started on their own 20 with 42 seconds to play.

Needing only to get into field goal range to set up the potential score, the Badgers decided to go for it all on the first play of the drive. As a result, Tolzien suffered his first interception of the day when he tried connecting with Isaac Anderson deep down the field.

"Right now, the thing in my mind, are the last three drives and the last three passes that I threw," Tolzien, who finished 19-for-30 with 235 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, said. "Two incompletes and an interception. That's crunch time and where big players come up big. We weren't able to do that today."

Really, though, even with the offense given a few chances to make an impact in the final score, it was the Badger defense that put UW in precarious positions, particularly lapses in the secondary and limited pressure up front.

And maybe former Badger defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz had something to do with it.

"We were calling our checks out and they were calling them thinking about it," UW senior Chris Maragos said. "You could see them talking to each other and then they started realizing what coverage we were playing to certain calls. They understood what we were doing.

"We had to change some stuff up."

In the first half it was obvious Northwestern caught the Badgers on their heels. Kafka, who got rid of the ball extremely quick on most occasions, carved the UW secondary at ease. He never looked uncomfortable or shook in the pocket and it was obvious he was able to follow the game plan.

In the second half though, the Badgers held Northwestern to only six points and gave their offensive teammates a chance to make something happen. In the end, UW fell just short and ended any hope of a 10-win regular season.

"The season isn't defined by one game," Bielema said. "It's how you go about your business. I've been so proud about the way the guys have handled their business and taking a workman's mentality. Unfortunately we didn't get the win today.

"Those seniors in there, I'm mad because they didn't get to go out winners in Big Ten play. The reason we are where we are is because of the leadership they've shown."

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