Rutgers returned to the field for a matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers after a tumultuous week, so calling them “fresh off a bye” would probably not be accurate characterization. Both teams were coming off losses to Northwestern, a very unexpected outcome for the Badgers who tumbled from the top 25 following the defeat. Before the game, the Scarlet Knights found out that Wisconsin starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook and starting safety D’Cota Dixon would be on the field, while RU star Tight End Jerome Washington was out with a bad back.
For the second game in a row, the opening kickoff was not good for the Scarlet Knights. Justin Davidovicz, the team’s second most consistent performer booted the kick way out of bounds to give the Badgers good field position. Wisconsin methodically moved the ball downfield and Rutgers’s only chance to stop them came on a tipped ball that Saquan Hampton could not corral for a pick. This is notable because Hampton was on another level after that play despite Wisconsin punching one in for a 7-0 lead on the back of star running back and New Jersey native Jonathan Taylor.
After that, an actual football game was played. Wisconsin moved the ball after a Rutgers three and out, but an atrocious decision by quarterback Alex Hornibrook resulted in a turnover. Hornibrook rolled to his right which he does a lot despite being left-handed and threw a jump ball that Hampton snared along the sideline despite effort from the receiver to knock it away.
The next sequence was maddening. Rutgers offensive coordinator John McNulty called a reverse to Bo Melton on the first play that had potential to get at least 7 or 8 yards had Bo allowed Daevon Robinson to make a block. Instead Melton ran past Robinson and was tackled by a shoestring to limit it to a three yard gain. A second down pass attempt to Shameen Jones fell incomplete as Jones was open but turned inside while Sitkowski thought he would break to the outside and put the ball along the sideline. Then somehow miraculously on third down the protection held up and Sitkowski found Travis Vokolek for 19 yards right down the middle. The play was bizarre because after Vokolek caught the ball he practically ran into teammate Hunter Hayek before being hit by a defender. How Rutgers had two receivers in an area where no defender was within 7 yards would not happen again as the Badgers barely played any zone after that. Melton could not shield his defender on the next play and on second Isaih Pacheco barreled for 4 yards. Melton again could not haul in a third down toss and RU had to punt again.
Wisconsin got a field goal by marching down the field again, even though Rutgers’s defense was starting to find its footing. One chance to prevent the drive from getting points happened when Damon Hayes broke up a pass over the middle that bounced off the outstretched hand of Hampton who was also in good position. The drive went 18 plays and 78 yards over 8 minutes and 47 seconds of game time into the second quarter, but Wisconsin only got the three points. It was now 10-0 and would remain that way for quite some time.
Rutgers went three and out and after the ball was punted back to Wisconsin, while Kessawn Abraham had a little bad luck in punt coverage. Punter Adam Korsak handles the ball so well he can wait a long time before kicking allowing the cover team led by Abraham to get downfield. Abraham did his best to get out of the way of the punt returner twice but was flagged for catch interference. After some spirited play on defense headlined by Kevin Wilkins, Tyshon Fogg, and Hampton forced the Badgers to punt.
Rutgers got two first downs on the ensuing drive after several examples of where Sitkowski made the correct read of what receiver “should” have been open based on the playcall and defensive alignment but Rutgers simply could not execute. It’s worth noting that on first and second down plays on the drive, the Wisconsin defense looked like what Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram said the Minnesota Vikings looked like in Super Bowl IV. Though Rutgers had not scored and execution was generally poor, the playcalling was quite good.
To avoid another running into the returner penalty, Abraham did something I have never seen from a gunner but was actually genius. Abraham was practically standing next to the return man Jack Dunn when the ball was kicked and actually waited diaganally behind him watching the ball fly as if he was the returner himself. Of course there was nowhere to go with the entire cover team surrounding him at this point so Dunn simply made the fair catch at his 32 yard line.
Saquan Hampton’s second interception (easily could have had four by that point) on the first play of the ensuing Wisconsin drive was among the best plays he has ever made. He lined up as a cornerback then jumped the route to change possession in Wisconsin territory. Despite Rutgers outfoxing Wisconsin on first and second down again but executing poorly, they still faced a third and short. Sitkowski was forced to scramble but was stopped short of the sticks setting up a long field goal attempt. The decision not go for it on 4th down will be scrutinized heavily because Justin Davidovicz had his kick blocked and run back by D’Son Dixon into Rutgers territory.
Rutgers dodged another bullet as the defense dug in to force another three and out, headlined by a spectacular third down pass deflection by Hampton. Rutgers in the two-minute drill moved the ball across midfield with some passes complete to Blackshear, Jon Hilliman, Shameen Jones, Melton, and Travis Vokolek. Ultimately Rutgers punted with just 1:15 left to play in the half after Sitkowski was pummeled on a third down pass attempt that Melton was unable to shield his defender from breaking up. Wisconsin had to keep their defense on the field to protect against a fake and Abraham downed Korsak’s punt inside the one yard line.
Wisconsin was unable to take a knee because they were backed up so far, and behind their solid run-blocking offensive line gained some yards on the ground with less than a minute to go. Then after a timeout by Wisconsin on a long run by Jonathan Taylor, Rutgers was somehow flagged for a personal foul for a sideline warning. The sequence was bizarre for those watching because BTN then cut to another commercial without another play being run. It moved the ball enough for the Badgers to have a shot at field goal range, but Tyshon Fogg almost intercepted a pass and then on the subsequent dropback Mike Tverdov came up with his 4th sack of the campaign. Wisconsin elected to just let the clock run out as Hornibrook was shaken up by the hit, so at intermission it was still 10-0 Badgers.
In the first half, Sitkowski was just 7 of 19 for 70 yards and the Knights tallied just 41 yards on the ground. On the other side, Hornibrook threw for 92 yards and Taylor had 97 yards and a TD. Hampton led the Knights with six tackles and the two interceptions.
Rutgers received the second half kick and went three and out after Sitkowski made the right read but did not wait for Blackshear to come open on third down. After a monster punt by Korsak to the Wisconsin 12 yard line, Hornibrook did not return for the second half and was replaced by backup quarterback Jack Coan. The Badgers did not allow Coan to attempt a pass on his first drive, but they didn’t need to. The Badgers ran between the tackles all six plays on an 88 yard touchdown drive capped by Taylor’s second touchdown. The score was now what seemed like an insurmountable 17-0 cushion for the home team.
Rutgers achieved a key first down conversion on a third down run by Jon Hilliman, but then shot themselves in the foot on first and second down. Luckily Raheem Blackshear bailed them out with a huge gain on a third down screen pass where he made two guys miss and had to drag two tacklers about four yards to convert. Then another third and long was converted by Raheem Blackshear as a receiver down the sideline on a great throw by Sitkowski to set up first and goal.
On first down from the 9 yard line, RU ran a max protection play action pass but Travis Vokolek could not haul in a decent throw that probably would have been short of the goal line but gained five or six yards. Then on second RU ran a direct snap to Raheem Blackshear but it only went for a short gain. Third down was a screen to Blackshear as a receiver but Wisconsin read it well and stopped him at the four yard line. Rather than go for it, Ash called the field goal unit to convert a 22 yard kick which they did to get RU on the scoreboard. Wisconsin 17, Rutgers 3. 4:17 left in the 3rd quarter.
In response, Wisconsin picked up where they left off, refusing to throw the ball and completing another touchdown drive of 7 plays, 75 yards. All this came on the ground of course and the lead ballooned to 24-3. You’d think maybe Coan could use some reps in case he needs to play in a close game later this season, but Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst wanted to ensure this game was put out of reach first.
Rutgers was forced to punt and Abraham made another nice tackle to pin Wisconsin back. The Badgers took all of one play to advance the ball into Rutgers territory as Coan completed his first pass attempt of the game to Taylor who turned it into a 30 yard gain inside RU territory. Rutgers defense held, highlighted by Will Previlon stuffing Taylor on a third and one for a loss of six yards to set up a 4th down. The crowd was stunned and so was the Badger coaching staff who kept their offense on the field in no man’s land. RU showed blitz but only brought four, easily getting pressure which they did all game in obvious passing downs and Rashawn Battle stopped a scrambling Coan to turn over the ball and keep it a three score game.
Rutgers got the ball at their 43 yard line and a Wisconsin defense starting to rotate in their reserves was hit in the mouth by Isaih Pacheco on first down. Then a flea flicker on second hit a wide open Shameen Jones in both hands but fell incomplete. Nice plays by Blackshear, Hilliman, and then Blackshear again got RU down to the seven yard line. On first down, RU fooled Wisconsin on a quarterback option and Sitkowski was barely stopped inside the one. Then on the fourth attempt at second down after a Wisconsin penalty, TV review, and Wisconsin timeout, Hilliman plowed in for the touchdown. Davidovicz tacked on the extra point and with 8:14 to play it was now Wisconsin 24, Rutgers 10.
Rutgers elected to kick deep and it backfired despite several third down opportunities to get Wisconsin’s offense off the field. The defense was out of gas by this point. Danny Davis scored a touchdown by inches to put the game out of reach with 3:37 to go. Wisconsin 31, Rutgers 10.
The Knights moved the ball deep in garbage time which didn’t impact the outcome, but did get Raheem Blackshear up to 162 receiving yards. On a third down, Bo Melton came up with a pass, wrestling the ball away from three defenders which may be something to build on. On 4th down, Blackshear caught a nice toss from Sitkowski for a TD but only 1:13 remained in the game and that would do it. Wisconsin 31, Rutgers 17.
Rutgers is now 1-8 overall and 0-6 in Big Ten play, with only two of those losses being close in the 4th quarter. Wisconsin is now 6-3 on the campaign with an outside chance to capture the Big Ten West title.
The Scarlet Knights return home to face #5 Michigan next Saturday.