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Wisconsin rides big second half past Northwestern

Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Garret Dooley (5) celebrates with linebacker Leon Jacobs (32) following a sack during the third quarter against the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sports Xchange

MADISON — Coach Paul Chryst takes pride in the emphasis that No. 10 Wisconsin places on its defense.

The Badgers have allowed 14 second-half points in four wins this season, with two late, fourth-quarter touchdowns occurring during their 33-24 win over Northwestern on Saturday in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams at Camp Randall Stadium.

The Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) snapped Wisconsin’s no-points streak that stretched 115 minutes and 12 seconds and seven quarters.

“Our defense did really good and kept us in the game, really gave us a chance,” said Chryst of the Badgers, who gave up 25 rushing yards against the Wildcats. “They did a tremendous job on pass rush, a good job of mixing it up and I thought it was a good plan.

“I was proud, particularly in the second half, when our offense was able to finish some drives and take advantage. I thought we were playing complementary football at that time.”

The Badgers (4-0, 1-0) collected season highs with eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

Another critical element on defense was holding Wildcats senior running back Justin Jackson to 26 yards on nine carries. Jackson entered the game with an 82.7 yards-per-game average, but was hampered by a leg injury. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t elaborate on the injury, but said Jackson had not practiced all week. Jackson added four catches for 16 yards.

Wisconsin outside linebacker Garret Dooley recorded three sacks of quarterback Clayton Thorson, who completed 29 of 45 passes for 219 yards, with three TDs and two interceptions.

After a forgettable first half, the Badgers rallied to score 26 second-half points.

Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who struggled with long passes in the first half, found success on the Badgers’ first series in the third quarter. He threw a 61-yard play-action pass to sophomore wide receiver Quintez Cephus, which put the team on Northwestern’s 11-yard line. Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor rushed for an 11-yard score on the next play to give Wisconsin a 14-10 advantage at 9:16 of the third.

Cephus finished with 99 receiving yards, a career-high effort.

“The guy (Cephus) was wide open,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Crazy concept when that happens. When guys don’t communicate, the guy goes down the field and he’s wide open.

“That was an issue of miscommunication on a play and a rep that we actually practiced this week.”

The Badgers padded their lead to 21-10 with an assist from freshman receiver Danny Davis, who caught a 32-yard Hornibrook pass and eluded five Wildcats defenders to reach Northwestern’s 6-yard line. He then hauled in a 5-yard pass to collect his first career TD at 5:26 of the third.

Wisconsin extended its edge to 24-10 on a 23-yard field goal by senior Rafael Gaglianone with 11:12 left in the game.

The Badgers’ second-half dominance continued with a 36-yard interception return for a TD by senior safety Natrell Jamerson. That increased the lead to 31-10 with 9:54 remaining.

The Wildcats posted a pair of second-half scores, which came too late to make a difference. Freshman Ramaud Bowman had a 2-yard TD pass reception with 4:46 to go, and senior slotback Garrett Dickerson hauled in a 6-yard TD pass with 2:53 left.

Taylor had 19 carries for 80 yards and two TDs.

Hornibrook completed 11 of 20 passes for 197 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

The Wildcats capitalized on a Badgers turnover at the start when Northwestern sophomore cornerback Trae Williams recovered a fumble by senior punt returner Jazz Peavy on the game’s first play. Williams returned the ball to Wisconsin’s 24-yard line.

Four plays later, Northwestern got on the scoreboard with a 34-yard field goal by freshman kicker Charlie Kuhbander. The Wildcats led 10-7 at the half.

Junior left tackle Michael Dieter said the Badgers were slow and played with trepidation in the first half.

“We had a really confident third quarter, playing as fast and as confident as we have,” Deiter said. “We have to play confident for four quarters, 60 minutes. That’s what we have to work on.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald took some solace in that his team held the Badgers to 2.9 yards per carry.

“We tackled pretty well,” he said. “I didn’t see us have many communication breakdowns in that area. Credit Paul and his staff. They did a nice job taking some shots down the field.”

BADGER BITS: Wisconsin senior TE Troy Fumagalli, who missed Saturday’s game with a minor leg injury, was the team leader in catches (15) and receiving yards (236) entering the game against Northwestern. ... Northwestern senior RB Justin Jackson has 4,403 career rushing yards, which is 82 shy of the career record of 4,485 collected by Damien Anderson, who played for the Wildcats from 1997 to 2000. ... Ahead of Saturday’s game, Wisconsin held a 78.8 winning percentage and 26-7 record in Big Ten Conference play in the last five seasons. The only league team with a better record is Ohio State, which owns a 94.1 winning percentage and 32-2 record.