WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The University of Wisconsin football team’s defensive players somehow managed to keep the faith, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.
The seventh-ranked Badgers had forced only seven turnovers in their first eight games, including none in back-to-back victories over Ohio State and Iowa.
All they needed was something to get the turnover ball rolling and after coming up with a forced fumble that led to a first-half field goal against Purdue on Saturday, the UW defensive players believed the time was finally ripe.
“It was funny, at halftime, (linebacker) Blake Sorensen said, ‘We got one in the first half. This quarterback has been kind of throwing it around a little bit. He’s going to throw one to us eventually,’ ” UW defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. “He’s a good player but we knew eventually it would happen. He’s a freshman.”
True freshman Sean Robinson, a former fourth-string quarterback making his first start for the Boilermakers, did that not once or twice, but three times, as UW came back from a halftime deficit for the second straight time on the road to escape with a 34-13 victory at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Badgers improved to 8-1 overall and maintained pace in the loss column with the leaders in the Big Ten Conference at 4-1.
“As long as I’ve been in this game, it seems like the more you try to emphasize (turnovers), they don’t come,” UW coach Bret Bielema said. “Then, all of a sudden they just come in a flurry.
“The kids really did a nice job. You’ve got to catch those passes. You’ve got to get them in the end zone. They were able to do that.”
The flurry started with senior linebacker Culmer St. Jean’s interception on the first series of the second half and ended with cornerback Antonio Fenelus’ 36-yard interception return for the final score.
In between, linebacker Mike Taylor intercepted a pass tipped by cornerback Niles Brinkley, setting up the go-ahead touchdown. The four forced turnovers led to 24 points, which were badly needed on a day when the offense looked sluggish coming out of a bye.
“We had faith in our defense,” wide receiver Nick Toon said. “We know what our defense is capable of and they got it going today.”
Robinson, the third Purdue quarterback to start a game this season, looked poised in leading Purdue (4-5, 2-3) to a 10-6 halftime lead. He completed 11 of 19 passes in the first half for 91 yards. But when he missed, it tended to be high.
“Give credit to Purdue,” Bielema said of the banged-up Boilermakers. “They came out all jacked up and really took it to us the first half. Our guys responded.”
It could have been worse at halftime, but Taylor and free safety Aaron Henry — though not officially credited — combined to force a fumble by wide receiver Antavian Edison with the Boilermakers’ driving and leading 7-0. Fenelus’ 48-yard return set up a 44-yard field goal by Philip Welch.
Welch tacked on a 38-yard field goal at the end of the first half, which came even though the offense had to burn a timeout following an incompletion. The offense wasn’t crisp, including a first-half interception by quarterback Scott Tolzien in Purdue territory when he overthrew Isaac Anderson.
“I was throwing it to Isaac and air-mailed it,” Tolzien said after throwing an interception in his third straight game. “But he wasn’t open, so it shouldn’t be thrown.”
The biggest play of the game came from the senior St. Jean, a former prep quarterback who did a nice job reading Robinson’s eyes on third down.
“I just dropped back and read the quarterback,” St. Jean said. “He took me right to the ball.”
It was what the Badgers needed to get going.
“When you can come out and get a turnover like that right away, it obviously sparks your whole defense and sparks your team,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “That was a great way to start the half for us and we obviously steam-rolled the rest of the half.”
Tolzien took advantage with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis on play-action on first down to give UW its first lead at 13-10. It came after John Clay picked up a fourth-and-1 with a 2-yard run to the left side. But Clay also limped off with a minor knee injury and didn’t return.
That left the running game in the hands of sophomore Montee Ball, who delivered for the second straight game. Ball had touchdown runs of 31 and 15 yards, while rushing for a career-high 127 yards.
UW’s defense asserted control after St. Jean’s interception with three straight three-and-outs. But the Boilermakers trailed only 20-13 in the fourth quarter, before Taylor’s interception set up Ball’s second TD run.
“One thing about our defense, once we start making plays, it’s almost like a feeding frenzy,” said strong safety Jay Valai, who was in and out of the lineup with a torn calf muscle.
“It’s tough to win when you commit four turnovers,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said. “I’m really pleased with the way our guys showed up, rolled up their sleeves and got after it today.”
The victory should also be a good lesson for the Badgers about not overlooking any of their three remaining regular-season opponents.
“This can be a good thing for us if we learn from it and really straighten this out,” Tolzien said.
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