Linebacker Chris Borland smiled, then politely declined to share details of the rousing pregame speech he gave his Wisconsin teammates.
The Badgers defense did all its talking on the field.
Melvin Gordon ran for a 71-yard touchdown, Borland had one of his team’s seven sacks, and Wisconsin figured out No. 19 Northwestern’s high-octane offense in a 35-6 win Saturday.
For most of the day, the Badgers pushed around an opponent that had been averaging 39 points and 474 yards a game. Players in red jerseys were flying around all over the field, especially in Northwestern’s backfield.
“You can kind of feel the offense on their heels. Getting really aggressive is always a good time,” said Borland, who had a team-high 10 tackles. “That’s how you play defense.”
The Badgers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) chased down quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trever Siemian. Jared Abbrederis burned the secondary for a 63-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter before leaving with a head injury. Gordon finished with 22 carries for 172 yards.
And, as usual, the heady Borland was in the middle of what seemed like every play. That energy from the pregame speech seemed to carry over to both sides of the ball, building up as a slow start and defensive struggle turned into a decided blowout on homecoming weekend.
“Trust me, Chris Borland said whatever he needed to say in very [certain] terms,” coach Gary Andersen said. “Those kids listened to him.”
Northwestern (4-2, 0-2) the league’s peskiest defense, grabbed three more turnovers to increase its season total to 17.
The Wildcats just couldn’t turn those mistakes into enough points.
Clobbered by the pass rush. Shut down in the running game — just 44 yards on 25 carries, the lowest total since getting zero yards in a loss to Ohio State in 2007.
“I hope this gives our guys a punch in the face and wakes them up. It’s hard to win Big Ten football games,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When you get punched in the face, you’ve got to shake the cobwebs out.”
On the other end, Northwestern was doomed by the big plays. Gordon’s long run gave Wisconsin a three-possession lead before halftime.
Back from what turned out to be a minor left knee injury that knocked him out of the loss to Ohio State two weeks ago, Gordon ran left on a sweep and burst through the hole on second-and-3. Ibraheim Campbell tried to close out inside the 10, but the speedy, 207-pound back lowered his right shoulder into the safety to just get the ball over the goal line on a play upheld on replay review.
“We started out slow and by the defense playing so well, it allowed us to get in our groove,” Gordon said.
A week after a 40-30 loss to Ohio State, the Wildcats took a step back on the road.
“We know we can play better,” linebacker Damien Proby said. “We know we can play a lot better than what we showed out there today.”
Do-everything quarterback Colter was held to 10 yards rushing on six carries for Northwestern. The Wildcats tried to stretch the field horizontally to find holes but Borland and his fellow linebackers filled the lanes while the secondary did an admirable job covering up the receiving corps.
Colter finished 4 for 5 passing for 34 yards and an interception. Siemian was 13 for 34 for 163 yards.
The Badgers had huge edges in first downs (24-10) and total yards (527-241). They held Northwestern to 2 of 17 on third downs.
It didn’t help that running back Venric Mark, who had just returned last week from an injury, got knocked out in the second quarter with an apparent left foot injury. Colter also suffered what Northwestern called a “lower body injury” in the first half but quickly returned.
The Wildcats, playing catch-up, went with drop-back passer Siemian more as the game progressed.
It played right into the hands of the charging Badgers.
“After Colter was out, we were keyed into that,” Borland said. “It worked to our advantage.”
The Wildcats only managed two first-half field goals by Jeff Budzien from 27 and 43.
James White’s 1-yard touchdown run made it 14-3 with 7:06 in the second quarter before Gordon’s long run to add another touchdown.
White finished with 101 yards on 19 carries. Abbrederis had two catches for 74 yards. Andersen said after the game that his top receiver looked OK and should be back next week to face Illinois.