MADISON, Wis. (AP) — After watching a comfortable fourth-quarter lead melt away in a matter of minutes, No. 12 Wisconsin needed a big defensive play from Ethan Hemer to fend off FCS school Northern Iowa on Saturday.
The redshirt junior defensive lineman batted down a pass by Panthers quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen on fourth-and-1 in Wisconsin territory, allowing the Badgers to escape with a 26-21 victory over the Panthers — who showed why they're regarded as one of the top teams in Division I's second tier.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema figured his team might learn more from a close call than a big blowout to start the season.
"You've got to touch a hot stove once," Bielema said. "Once you get burned, you're not going to do it again. And hopefully our guys learn, hey, you've got to put people away when we can."
Montee Ball rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown for the Badgers, while new starting quarterback Danny O'Brien completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Jared Abbrederis in his debut.
"I believe we didn't make the statement that we wanted to," Ball said. "But I believe this was a great learning experience for us all, because we believe that the mentality (we had) toward the game, we weren't attacking the defense like we should have. But it's a lot easier to correct your mistakes after a win than a loss."
Kollmorgen threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns.
It was another huge effort against superior competition for the Panthers, who had one-point losses at Iowa in 2009 and at Iowa State last season. Northern Iowa beat Iowa State in 2007.
"Without the batted ball, we might still be playing," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. "A guy got a hand up, so credit him."
Kollmorgen said the Panthers didn't get what they wanted, but should leave with their heads held high.
"Coach Farley said to come out and prove we belong," Kollmorgen said. "We did that today."
Despite their classification, Bielema said he knew the Panthers would put up a fight.
"There's a lot of FBS schools that I'd rather play than those guys," Bielema said. "They're a really, really good football team."
Although the Badgers got off to a sluggish start on offense, they appeared to be on track for a fairly comfortable win.
Wisconsin's defense didn't allow Northern Iowa on its side of the 50-yard line until the 4:27 mark in the third quarter — but then the Badgers nearly melted down.