MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant has been around long enough to feel comfortable he wouldn't need to worry about a rust factor as he played his first game since late September.
“Maybe if I was a redshirt freshman, maybe,” the graduate student in his sixth year of eligibility said Saturday after Northwestern's 24-10 victory over Wisconsin. “But I'm so experienced. I've played in so many games. I think all that just plays into helping me, just knowing how to handle the nerves, handle the environment, handle the pressure."
After missing Northwestern's last four games due to an upper-body injury, Bryant led touchdown drives on each of Northwestern's first three series against his former coach. Bryant's fast start helped the Wildcats grab a 24-3 halftime lead and continue one of the most surprising stories of this college football season.
“What I saw was a young man who didn’t miss a beat,” Northwestern interim head coach David Braun said.
Northwestern (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) snapped a 14-game losing streak in true road games, which had been the longest active such skid by any Football Bowl Subdivision team. The Wildcats also made Braun the first Northwestern coach to earn at least five wins in his debut season since Walter McCornack went 10-1-3 in 1903.
Braun had joined Northwestern’s staff as defensive coordinator in January. He got promoted when Pat Fitzgerald was fired prior to the season due to a hazing and abuse scandal.
“I’m so stinking proud of this group of guys in that locker room, so proud of this staff, so proud of just the way that everyone has continued to battle,” Braun said. “True character is revealed in times of adversity. The way that this team has continued to perform is just a credit to their character.”
Wisconsin (5-5, 3-4) dropped its third straight as the Badgers' first season under former Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell has fallen well short of expectations. The Badgers dropped this one as an 11 ½-point favorite over a team they had beaten 42-7 last year and 35-7 in 2021.
Fickell called the performance “embarrassing” and added that "I'll take the blame for not having guys ready in any phase of the game.”
“We just have to play better,” said Wisconsin safety Hunter Wohler, who had a team-high 10 tackles. “We come out soft. We come out flat. We have zero energy on either side of the ball and we get whooped around the field.”
Northwestern converted each of its first 10 third-down situations. Bryant went 18 of 26 for 195 yards with two touchdown passes — a 23-yarder to A.J. Henning and a 24-yarder to Cam Johnson — as well as a 1-yard touchdown run .
Bryant began his career by playing for Fickell as a Cincinnati backup from 2018-20. He transferred to Eastern Michigan and made 11 starts in 2021, then went back to Cincinnati and started 11 more games while playing for Fickell again before heading to Northwestern.
“I have nothing but respect for that guy,” Bryant said of Fickell. “He gave me the chance to come back to Cincinnati. He's a really good coach, a really good leader. I know he's going to do really good things here at Wisconsin. It was really fun to play against him.”
Wisconsin took an early 3-0 lead as quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who returned after missing three games with a broken right hand, led a game-opening drive that resulted in Nathanial Vakos’ 33-yard field goal.
Northwestern scored the next 24 points.
Wisconsin held Northwestern’s offense in check after halftime but couldn’t rally. The Badgers scored their lone touchdown on Jackson Acker’s 3-yard run with 11 seconds left in the game.
“Guys got to look inside themselves and find out who they really are and if they really want to play this game and if they really want to be a part of this team,” Wohler said. “This is not what I came to Wisconsin for, to be completely honest. This is miles different from what I grew up watching. Obviously I take responsibility for it, being part of the team.”
Northwestern: Braun continues to show why Northwestern should consider removing the interim tag from his title and making him the coach for keeps. He has worked wonders with a program that went a combined 4-20 in Fitzgerald's last two seasons.
Wisconsin: The Badgers can still become eligible for a 22nd consecutive bowl appearance — only Georgia and Oklahoma have longer active bowl streaks — by winning just one of their last two games. But that prospect doesn't seem likely nearly as much of a sure thing as it did a few weeks ago. A lack of health is part of the issue. Running back Braelon Allen returned from a leg injury that kept him from playing against Indiana, but he had just three carries and sat out most of the game.
Northwestern: Hosts Purdue next Saturday.
Wisconsin: Hosts Nebraska next Saturday.
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