MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen thought about it, but didn't share with his team.
Not until the Badgers took care of business.
A resounding 35-6 win over then-No. 19 Northwestern provided Wisconsin the big win in a key game that it desperately wanted.
"This was a big football game, and I never said that all week," Andersen said, "but in the back of my mind, this was a big game, and I'm not one to usually say that stuff."
No other words needed after the thumping administered on the Wildcats on homecoming weekend in Madison.
After a two-week hiatus, Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) climbed back into the AP Top 25 on Sunday at No. 25.
It returned after the defense compiled quite a few milestones against Northwestern (4-2, 0-2), which fell out of the rankings.
— Seven sacks by seven Badgers, most since 2001.
— Forty-four rushing yards for Northwestern, the fewest since 2007
— No touchdowns for Northwestern for the first time since 2006.
"It looked like we just didn't execute very well. It looked like a bunch of one-man breakdowns," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We dropped some balls. It looked like a comedy of errors there."
Once again, Camp Randall Stadium turned into a house of horrors for an opponent. The Badgers have outscored opponents 134-10 in four home wins.
But times have been tough on the road. Wisconsin has had two close calls, starting with a 32-30 loss to Arizona State in Week 3 that featured a botched call by officials at the end of the game.
Then came a 31-24 loss at Ohio State which damaged the Badgers' chances of winning the Leaders Division and getting a shot at a fourth straight Big Ten crown.
To stay in the race, they need to keep winning.
"We were talking about how we hadn't put a full game together defensively as a team," linebacker and senior leader Chris Borland said. "We came up short against two good opponents."
"We just wanted to put our best foot forward, try and earn some respect in our conference," Borland added. "I think we did it today."
By confusing the Wildcats with pressure out of different looks. Keep in mind that Wisconsin switched to a 3-4 scheme in the first year of Andersen's tenure in Madison.
But they're picking it up and gaining more confidence under Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. After having trouble with Arizona State and Ohio State, the Badgers smothered Northwestern's spread.
A young secondary created at least one coverage sack, and freshman Sojourn Shelton picked up his third interception of the season.
"Just to be able to see our defense play collective Wisconsin defense and be able to hold an offense like that to six points, it's an encouraging sign," said linebacker Conor O'Neill, who had a sack. "It's something we're going to improve on."
Now Wisconsin needs to carry the momentum on the road. Illinois is next.
For Northwestern, it's back to the film room to figure out how things went so wrong so fast. Just two weeks ago, the Wildcats were 4-0 and one of the headline acts of the Big Ten.
"The good thing about our program and our recruiters (is) that we don't recruit quitters or people who give up on any given program or any given play or any given down," linebacker Damien Proby said. "We're looking forward to coming back and getting after it this next week."
Notes: Representatives from the Fiesta Bowl and Florida Citrus Sports, which operates the Capital One Bowl, were at the game ... FB Derek Watt, the brother of Houston Texans former Badgers DE J.J. Watt, scored his first career touchdown off a 3-yard pass in the fourth quarter.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP