Wisconsin holds on to beat N. Illinois 28-20
But then came a furious fourth-quarter rally by Northern Illinois, and Wisconsin needed a big play by safety Chris Maragos to escape with a 28-20 victory in Saturday night's opener.
It was another shaky win for a Big Ten team over non-BCS conference opponent in the first week of play, joining Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana. But the Badgers will take it.
"We didn't finish the way we wanted to tonight," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We struggled."
But, Watt added, "We stopped them when we needed to, and I think that says a lot about our character."
Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill liked the way his young players responded to early adversity.
"We got beat by a team that executed better than we did," Kill said. "But we played hard and didn't quit. We had a chance at the end."
New starting quarterback Scott Tolzien threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Anderson on the first offensive play for the Badgers (1-0).
"It definitely relaxes us, to get ahead in the game, get the crowd in the game, and just get the jitters out on the first play," Tolzien said. "Touchdown — that's as good as it gets."
Anderson also ran for a 23-yard touchdown on an end around in the second quarter, and the rout appeared to be on when John Clay ran for a pair of 1-yard touchdowns in the third.
The Badgers led 28-6 but the Huskies (0-1), of the Mid-American Conference, drove for a touchdown, capped by Chad Spann's 1-yard scoring run with 8:29 remaining. NIU then missed a two-point conversion attempt.
But Tolzien threw an interception deep in Badgers territory and NIU drove for another score.
The Huskies' drive was kept alive when officials ruled that quarterback Chandler Harnish's forward progress was halted before he lost the ball on third-and-goal, and the Huskies also benefited from a pass interference call in the end zone on the next play. Spann then scored on a 2-yard run.
"We had confidence," Harnish said. "Our offensive rhythm wasn't very good throughout the game. But in the fourth quarter we started to find it, and I think we will be able to build off it for next week."
Spann also recovered the onside kick, giving the Huskies a chance to tie on a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final 2:46. But Maragos broke up a pass on fourth-and-3 to seal the win for Wisconsin.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema hoped his team would learn from the experience.
"We've had situations that happened in the past where we didn't move forward and the result was a negative outcome the next game," Bielema said.
NIU generally contained Wisconsin's trademark running game but struggled at times to stop the Badgers' passing game without last year's defensive star, Larry English, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers.
Making his first start but occasionally alternating with redshirt freshman Curt Phillips, Tolzien was 15 of 20 for 257 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, both by linebacker Cory Hanson.