The University of Wisconsin’s slow offensive start Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium morphed into a desperate situation just beyond halftime.
A hit to the back of quarterback Alex Hornibrook forced a pass to wobble into the arms of linebacker Evahelotu Tohi, and New Mexico, a 36-point underdog on the road against the country’s fifth-ranked team, were just 26 yards from securing a third-quarter lead.
“Whenever (we) turn the ball over and they’ve got really good field position, we get excited,” UW safety Scott Nelson said. “If they don’t get points, that’s heartbreaking for them. ... That’s one of the things that we pride ourselves on as a defense.”
Nelson delivered an upset-shattering interception three plays later, stepping in front of a pass at the 2-yard line to kickstart the Badgers’ 45-14 victory over the Lobos (1-1).
Jonathan Taylor ran for 65 yards over the next three plays, setting up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Hornibrook to wide receiver A.J. Taylor that gave the Badgers (2-0) a 17-7 advantage.
When New Mexico attempted a sneak on third-and-1 the following drive, redshirt freshman Kayden Lyles pushed center Kyle Stapley into the quarterback, forcing a fumble that Lyles ultimately recovered.
That led to Jonathan Taylor’s second touchdown of the game, and fullback Alec Ingold’s 1-yard plunge on the first play of the fourth quarter put the game out of reach at 31-7.
“That was a big one,” defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk said of Lyles’ fumble recovery. “When that happened, it gave us a little more juice, kind of like Scott’s interception. When stuff like that happens, it brings a little more energy.”
Oddly enough, UW’s defensive players were the ones searching for answers when the game began. New Mexico’s opening drive went 87 yards on 17 plays and included four third-down conversions — the final one a third-and-goal from the 11 that produced a touchdown pass from Tevaka Tuioti to wide receiver Delane Hart-Johnson.
The Lobos didn’t score again until the fourth quarter and managed just 124 yards the rest of the game, 77 of which came in the fourth quarter once the Badgers had built a comfortable lead. New Mexico also failed to convert on seven straight third downs after its first possession.
UW players said they made an adjustment to the way they defended the Lobos’ read option after that opening drive. Last week against Incarnate Word, New Mexico used motion to set up those plays, something they didn’t show against the Badgers on Saturday.
“The whole week, we were kind of getting that look, just from a wide receiver motion or a wing motion,” Nelson said. “They came out and just lined up directly in it, so it kind of threw off how we were going to play it a little bit.
“It wasn’t brand new. It was just a little tweak to what we’d been doing. ... It was something that we’ve gone over before, it just wasn’t necessarily in the game plan. So Coach (Jim) Leonhard said we’re going to play this like that, and just like that, boom.”
UW’s turnaround also wasn’t hurt by an injury that forced New Mexico into a quarterback change after its third offensive series of the game.
With No. 2 quarterback Coltin Gerhart already out, third-stringer Sheriron Jones entered for Tuioti with nine minutes, 25 seconds left in the second quarter and went on to turn the ball over three times in the second half.
“So all of a sudden in a situation like this against a team like this, you don’t have quite the confidence, quite the rhythm, and that was apparent,” New Mexico coach Bob Davie said. “I thought honestly schematically there were some things that we could do. When our quarterback went out, we didn’t get much done after that. ... I’d like to see what would’ve happened if Tevaka would’ve played the whole game, but that isn’t the way football goes.”
Jones’ third turnover came late in the fourth quarter, when cornerback Madison Cone snagged an interception on the New Mexico 47-yard line. True freshman wide receiver Taj Mustapha then finished off UW’s second-half scoring spree on a 3-yard pass from Danny Vanden Boom with 0:22 left.
“I was certainly proud of the way the day finished, and what’s fun about the game is you’ve got to play it and you’ve got to earn everything,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Turnovers are a big part of this game. ... I think the big swing came on Scott’s pick.”
Jonathan Taylor lost his second fumble in as many games but had a career-high 253 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries. He gave the Badgers their first lead of the game at 10-7 with a 16-yard touchdown run with 2:20 left in the first half, and his 4-yard score with 6:36 remaining handed UW a 38-14 lead.
A.J. Taylor’s 134 receiving yards were also a career high, while Hornibrook completed 8 of 11 passes for 148 yards with one touchdown and one interception.