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Northwestern tries late comeback but drops conference opener to Wisconsin

If the preseason prognostications are to be believed, Wisconsin should run away with the Big Ten West.

One game in, the Badgers are on their way.

Northwestern put up a fight, leading at halftime and even staging a late comeback effort, but a mostly dominating performance by Wisconsin in the second half meant an improvement to 4-0 and a win in the conference opener for the team from Madison.

The Wildcats took the ball away three times in the first half and got a lengthy touchdown drive to carry a 10-7 lead into halftime. But it was almost entirely Badgers after the break, a near-perfect third quarter highlighted by an unrelenting pass rush and a pair of touchdowns.

Adding a field goal and a pick six in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin briefly sent this one into blowout territory. But Clayton Thorson threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final five minutes to bring it to a one-score game. Northwestern even got the ball back with a little more than a minute remaining, but the attempt at a miracle comeback was thwarted when Thorson was sacked in the end zone for a game-ending safety.

Wisconsin’s defense stepped up big time after halftime and brought incredible pressure on Thorson, finishing with eight sacks on the afternoon. The Badgers also held the Cats to a paltry 25 rushing yards, the same total that went to star running back Justin Jackson, who carried the ball only nine times.

Meanwhile, Alex Hornibrook rebounded from a bit of a shaky start. After completing 18 of his 19 passes in the Badgers’ previous game, Hornibrook threw two interceptions in the first half but had a better second half, throwing a touchdown pass in the third quarter. Running back Jonathan Taylor had two touchdown carries on the day.

Despite Thorson’s late drives, Wisconsin continues to look like the kind of team that can run over the division and pile up a ton of wins this season. Northwestern’s 14 fourth-quarter points were the first Wisconsin’s defense allowed in the second half this season, but it was still a very impressive performance from that side of the ball.

The Badgers have outscored their opponents 163-54 in their four wins this season.

Northwestern dropped to 2-2 on the season with the loss and is still struggling to put together much offensive consistency. The offensive line has a lot to do with that, as exhibited by Wisconsin’s sack total and the meager rushing total. Jackson has now been effectively silenced in two of the Cats’ four games this season, something that cannot happen if Northwestern expects to win games.

And, as Pat Fitzgerald pointed out after the game, only scoring three points off those three first-half turnovers was a huge development.

Northwestern gets no time to rest, as a brutal 1-2 punch to start conference play continues next weekend with another top-10 team, Penn State, in Evanston.