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2nd half outburst leads Badgers to win over Northwestern

Wisconsin’s defense propels Badgers to a win over Northwestern in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

The 2017 Wisconsin Badgers have gained a reputation as a second-half team. Consider that cemented, as UW overcame a sloppy first half and used an early push in the second half to win 33-24 over Northwestern.

Wisconsin’s defense came to play for four quarters, but it took halftime for UW’s offense to come along for the ride. The defense racked up 10 sacks, had two interceptions — one of which was returned for a key touchdown in the second half — and a safety on the day.

The defense allowed just 25 rushing yards to the Wildcats, its fewest against a Big Ten opponent since holding Michigan State to 25 rushing yards on Nov. 1, 2008.

UW’s offense fumbled three times, quarterback Alex Hornibrook was picked off twice and it all added up to the Badgers down 10-7 to Northwestern at the half. But, things turned around for the Badgers offense and Hornibrook in the second half.

Coming off a record-setting performance against BYU in Week 3, Hornibrook struggled out of the gate and was just 5 of 11 for 48 yards with a pair of interceptions in the first half. He turned it around to finish 11 of 22 for 197 yards and one touchdown to the two interceptions to help UW pull away just enough in the second half.

It looked like the Badgers were going to cruise as they put up 24 unanswered points to start the second half and take a 31-10 lead with 9:54 to play in the game. But, the Wildcats took advantage of a softer UW defense and put up 14 unanswered points to make it a one-score game with 2:53 to play.

But, like it did for most of the game, Wisconsin’s defense came up big when it mattered most. Senior safety D’Cota Dixon got a safety on Northwestern’s final possession to put it to a two-score game and end the visitors hopes for a comeback.

Dixon wasn’t just the star at the end either, he had a stellar day all over the field for Wisconsin. He racked up a team-best 12 tackles, had 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and the game-clinching safety.

Senior outside linebacker Garrett Dooley broke out in this game as well, putting up 8 tackles, 4.0 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in the win.

About the only good bit of news for the Badgers offense in the first half was freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who had 62 of his 83 yards and one of his two touchdowns on just 11 carries in the first half. His first touchdown run was a hard-earned one too, needing an incredible cut and some balance to make it happen.

UW’s defense came to picked up the offense for much of the first half, as they were forced to defend inside their own territory to start on two of six occasions, with a third drive starting at Northwestern’s 44-yard line. Yet, the Badgers held Northwestern to 1 of 5 on third downs in the half and 3 of 15 for the game.

All of it led to just 10 points in the half for the Wildcats, in large part to a defense that turned up the pressure following miscues by the offense. There were two sacks, a couple of quarterback hits and an interception as well.

The Wildcats had just 44 yards rushing and 117 yards on 35 plays in the first half.

UW’s defense didn’t allow Northwestern across midfield on its opening possession, and the offense finally rewarded the defense for its good deed.

After a pair of short plays to open up the next drive, Hornibrook hooked up with Quintez Cephus for the first big play of the game from UW’s offense. He hit Cephus for a 61-yard gain, which was followed immediately by an 11-yard touchdown run to the outside by Jonathan Taylor.

Wisconsin took its first lead since a 7-3 advantage in the first quarter on that run by Taylor and the floodgates opened after that.

The big plays continued for most of the third quarter, as Hornibrook hit Danny Davis on the next drive for a 32-yard reception to put the Badgers inside the Northwestern 10-yard line. Davis capped off the drive with a 5-yard TD reception for a 17-10 lead.

Hornibrook kept the next drive alive with a 31-yard strike to A.J. Taylor, but the Badgers couldn’t punch it in from inside the 10-yard line and Rafael Gaglianone kicked a 23-yard field goal for a 24-10 lead.

That’s when the Badgers defense got in on the act, with Natrell Jamerson stepping in front of a throw over the middle and taking it home for a 36-yard pick six.

UW was up 31-10 with 9:54 to play in the game.

But, Northwestern didn’t go away and it was the secondary that would come up big in a critical moment.

Such has been the story of the season for Wisconsin, who was tested by a good team for the first time this season.

Wisconsin will look to continue its momentum with a road trip to Nebraska next Saturday. Kick off has not been scheduled yet, but expect it to be a marquee game on the docket.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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