MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Ricardo Hallman never got down on himself when his playing time diminished last year after a poor midseason performance.
Now he’s made himself into one of college football’s most prolific ball-hawking defensive backs.
Hallman scored on a 95-yard interception return to shift the momentum just before halftime Saturday as Wisconsin defeated Rutgers 24-13 to remain the lone Big Ten West Division team without a conference loss.
“It was as big of a play as we’ve had all year,” Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said.
Braelon Allen ran for 101 yards and a touchdown, and Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) limited Rutgers (4-2, 1-2) to 64 yards rushing – less than one-third of the Scarlet Knights’ season average entering the day.
But it was Hallman’s pick-6 with four seconds before halftime that made the biggest difference.
Rutgers trailed 10-0 but had second-and-goal from the 6 in the final minute of the second quarter. Gavin Wimsatt attempted a pass to Christian Dremel, who was running an out pattern.
Hallman sensed what was happening immediately.
“We knew that Rutgers’ quarterback was a little bit trigger-happy in terms of just kind of seeing his first read and just kind of throwing it right there and stuff like that,” Hallman said. “Just kind of trying to bait him a little bit, just to make that guy look a little open and kind of come off of it. A bunch of film watching went into that.”
Hallman jumped the route, caught the pass, raced down the field and outran Wimsatt to the opposite end zone to give Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0) a 17-0 halftime advantage.
“It was awesome, just to see that green field and ultimately go get it,” Hallman said. “I knew I didn’t want to get caught. I knew the guys would clown me all day in the locker room if I got caught by the quarterback.”
That represents quite a turnaround for Hallman, who started seven games last season but essentially fell out of the regular playing rotation after allowing the game-winning touchdown in an overtime loss at Michigan State.
Hallman said the thought of transferring never crossed his mind.
“I love this place,” Hallman said. “I knew I wouldn’t be out on the bench for long. I knew I would be able to have a role on the team and contribute again.”
Rutgers mustered just one first down over its first five possessions, but Wisconsin struggled to pull away and was clinging to a 3-0 lead 25 minutes in.
After Allen lost a fumble that Rutgers recovered at its own 4, he bounced back with an 18-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.
Rutgers’ offense came to life at that point and reached scoring position before Wimsatt’s critical mistake.
“I can’t do that, especially in that situation, in the red zone,” said Wimsatt, who went 16 of 35 for 181 yards with one touchdown as well as the pick-6. “Credit to the corner, but I just can’t do that.”
Evan Simon took over for an injured Wimsatt late in the third and threw a 10-yard score to Aaron Young late in the third quarter to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 17-6, though Jai Patel’s extra-point attempt bounced off the left upright.
Wisconsin responded by going on a 15-play, 72-yard drive that culminated with Tanner Mordecai’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Tucker Ashcraft. Mordecai finished 17 of 31 for 145 yards.
Wimsatt returned to the game and completed the scoring by throwing an 11-yard score to Ian Strong with 4:07 remaining.
“We’re not there yet,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “But the word is yet. That’s the operative word. We are getting better.”
Rutgers: After getting outscored by a combined 168-30 in their first four matchups with Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights were much more competitive this time. But they can’t afford critical turnovers against quality teams. Wimsatt has thrown a pick-6 in each of Rutgers’ two losses this season.
Wisconsin: The Badgers entered Saturday having forced a total of nine takeaways over their last two games, but they’d also given up plenty of yards: 455 against Georgia Southern and 396 against Purdue. That defense allowed just 275 yards this time. Rutgers’ Kyle Monangai, who had rushed for 471 yards in the Scarlet Knights’ first five games, had just eight carries for 16 yards.
Rutgers: Hosts Michigan State next Saturday.
Wisconsin: Hosts Iowa next Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll