EVANSTON, Ill. — Despite Saturday’s 42-7 blowout win over Northwestern (1-5, 1-2), Wisconsin (3-3, 1-2) didn’t get out of Ryan Field unscathed. A scary moment occurred early in the third quarter.
On a 2nd and 7, NU quarterback Ryan Hilinski took a shot deep, challenging UW senior cornerback Cedrick Dort. The Kentucky transfer stood tall on the task, breaking up the play down the field, but it came at a cost.
It appeared Dort banged his head on the turf, knocking him out cold. Dort was down on the field for several minutes. On looked a very concerned group of teammates and even NU coaches, awaiting Dort to finally pop up and eventually be carted off the field.
“You pray for the guy. I didn’t see what happened, but obviously, it was pretty serious. I keep him in my thoughts and prayers.
“He seemed like he’s doing a lot better.”
Entire #Badgers team comes to see Cedrick Dort off. pic.twitter.com/8Tq7QtZDM6
Following the game, interim head coach Jim Leonhard confirmed that Dort returned to his usual self.
“Cedrick is doing much better,” said Leonhard. “Very cautious, hit his head on the turf really hard. Not gonna say exactly what happened. Doing much, much better on the field, communicating, and in very good spirits at this point.”
Another injury to watch this week leading up to Michigan State on Saturday, senior nose tackle Keeanu Benton appeared to tweak his leg in the second quarter and did not return.
“Got nicked up,” said Leonhard. “I know it was a situation where it kind of went numb a little bit. Thought maybe kind of hit a nerve, knee-to-knee situation. Think he’s gonna be okay, but don’t necessarily know the diagnoses at this point.”
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While the wound is still likely very raw from his termination, former head coach Paul Chryst is still a very big part of UW’s locker room. Following Saturday’s win, junior quarterback Graham Mertz said members of the team reached out to Chryst and made sure he knew he was still part of the program — although Mertz declined to share any details of the call.
“That’s him and I man, sorry,” Mertz laughed. “That’s always been our relationship. It’s between him and I.”
Junior outside linebacker Nick Herbig added that he spoke with Chryst on Friday, but like Mertz, did not want to divulge any secrets.
“This is still coach Chryst’s team, for sure,” said Herbig, who had UW’s only sack. “Coach Leonhard, to me, is the best defensive coordinator in the nation. Being able to win that first game for him as a head coach was awesome.”
Quarterback Graham Mertz threw for a career-high 322 yards and tied his personal-best with five touchdowns on 20-of-29 passing, but it would be foolish to ignore the job Wisconsin’s offensive line did on Saturday.
Mertz wasn’t sacked by Northwestern. The Wildcats also had just one hurry on those 29 attempts.
“I didn’t get touched today. I trust everybody in that room and they know it too,” Mertz stated. “I wouldn’t want to go play with any other group in the country. They do a great job every week of prepping, just really staying on the same page. There was some times today where I had to change the ‘Mike’ point, change the slides. Communication was great, clear, and concise.
“They did a great job of playing the game today. I’m so thankful.”
UW did change things up a bit, using their fifth starting group in six games.
Senior left guard Tyler Beach was replaced by sophomore Tanor Bortolini. In Bortolini’s place at right guard, the Badgers inserted senior Michael Furtney.
“He got banged up last week,” Leonhard said of Beach.
Wisconsin rolled with an entirely new set of starting inside linebackers on Saturday. With both sophomore Jordan Turner and junior Maema Njongmeta banged up, the Badgers turned to junior Tatum Grass and sophomore Jake Chaney, who both made their first career starts against Northwestern.
The move appeared to work well.
The Wildcats ran for just 79 yards on 23 carries. Grass was second on the team with 5.0 tackles, including .5 for loss. Chaney posted 4.0 stops and a quarterback hurry. Njongmeta, who broke his hand and needed surgery, according to Leonhard, still saw time mostly in pass rushing situations, coming up with 2.0 tackles, 1.0 for loss, and a hurry.
“On Monday, I found out,” said Chaney. “I knew Maema and JT were a little banged up, so I knew I was gonna have to fill their role. Just do what you do to prepare. Even if I wasn’t starting and one of them got hurt in the game, I have to be ready.
“I didn’t change much, but just prepared a little bit harder.”
UW’s front seven had a strong day in itself. While the Badgers only had 1.0 sack and four tackles for loss, they clearly established a new line of scrimmage off the snap, made Hilinski uncomfortable, and put NU in 14 third down situations, nine of which, were not all that manageable (6+ yards).
“I think we’re getting closer to it,” said Chaney. “I think we still left some on the field. I feel we can still be way better. This is a good step in the right direction.”
Sophomore tailback ran for 135 yards on 23 carries, coming off a disappointing 2-yard performance against Illinois the week prior. One of the biggest moves UW made on Saturday was having offensive coordinator Bobby Engram call plays from the sidelines.
For Allen’s sake, he now doesn’t have to get Engram on the phone to tell him what’s really on his mind.
“I can tell him face-t0-face, ‘Get me the ball,'” Allen joked.
Braelon Allen with the quote of the year.#Badgers pic.twitter.com/BpqWMMyYCV
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said he felt good about his team’s game plan on both sides of the ball coming in. What he couldn’t prepare for is how Wisconsin would respond to the firing of Chryst last week.
Fitzgerald said he was counting on some extra fight from the Badgers and the Wildcats got that and then some. UW scored the first 35 points of the game, won the turnover battle 35-0, scored their most points in the series since 2010, went 10-of-14 on third down, and held the ball for 34:16 on the road.
“We knew that what transpired last week would really galvanize their locker room and you can see that they came out and played hard early,” said Fitzgerald.
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