It’s been 18 years since Northwestern (5-3, 5-1) last won the Big Ten, and the years since have been full of disappointments, near-misses, and struggles as the team couldn’t recreate their championship mentality. Coming out of the Rutgers game last weekend, Northwestern’s offense looked sluggish, its defense relied on walk-on talent, and the team barely escaped with a win against the worst team in the Big Ten. Yet again, a championship-caliber season seemed to be just another pipe dream. Against #20 Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2 B1G) on family weekend, however, Northwestern convincingly beat down the Badgers 31-17 to maintain sole possession of first in the Big Ten West, and move one step closer to that elusive division title.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst confirmed before the game that Badgers starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook would be ruled out on concussion protocol. In his place stepped in sophomore Jack Coan (20-31, 158 YDS, 1 TD), who made the first start of his collegiate career. Given his relative inexperience, Chryst tried to establish the running game from the start, giving the rock to stud tailback Jonathan Taylor (11 RSH, 46 YDS, 2 FUM) and picking up consecutive first downs before a timely Nate Hall tackle ended their first drive.
Northwestern began the game as if the Rutgers near-debacle had never ended; Clayton Thorson (17-30, 167 YDS, 1 TD, 3 INT) threw an interception on the ‘Cats first set of downs after a pass intended for Bennet Skowronek (4 REC, 73 YDS) was deflected by Badgers linebacker Ryan Connelly into the hands of safety Evan Bondoc. Chryst went into his bag of tricks with a jet sweep to Kendric Pryor (4 REC, 52 YDS, 1 TD) followed up with a shovel pass to fullback Alec Ingold to set up Ingold’s 4-yard touchdown run up the gut of the Wildcats defense.
Thorson, however, responded masterfully on his next series, leading the ‘Cats on a 15 play, 75-yard drive that incorporated a combination of outside throws to three different receivers and runs by presumptive starting back Isaiah Bowser (34 RSH, 118 YDS, 1 TD) . Thorson scored on a quarterback sneak to tie the game at 7-7.
In what was to become a common theme throughout the game, Wisconsin shot themselves in the foot at the most inopportune moments. A block in the back on the Badgers’ kick return followed plays later by a batted ball at the line of scrimmage led to a stalled second drive for Wisconsin. At the end of the first quarter, Northwestern had found a balance between its running game and passing game, with balance 40 yds rushing and 39 receiving. Thorson went 3/4 on 3rd downs, and the defense held Wisconsin to only 62 yards of offense.
The second quarter began with a Wisconsin three and out, as as pressure from Gaziano and Earnest Brown IV prevented Coens from establishing a rhythm. On Northwestern’s next possession, Bennet Skowronek made perhaps the catch of the game with a helmet catch that he pinned to his shoulder over Wisconsin’s Rachad Wildgoose that was initially ruled incomplete. Kyric McGowan took a reverse for a 21-yard gain, but Northwestern’s drive stalled at the 1-yard line as Thorson got stuffed on two consecutive QB sneaks on 3rd and 4th down.
Thorson and company did not have to wait long for their next shot at the end zone, though, as Jonathan Taylor fumbled on a bad handoff from Coens a few plays into Wisconsin’s next drive. Corner Tre Williams recovered at the 15, and Northwestern scored on the ensuing possession. Interestingly enough, the ‘Cats went for it once more on 4th down, and a Wisconsin defensive pass interference call kept the drive alive. Northwestern looked in trouble once more as a holding call pushed the ball back the to 12, and Thorson was flushed from the pocket on 3rd and goal, evaded the pressure, juked inside between two defenders before diving to break the plane for a 14-7 advantage.<.p>
Wisconsin’s offense came back alive on their next possession, as backup running back Garret Groshek and Taylor ran through the Northwestern front four. Northwestern held out, though, and forced a field goal to make the score 14-10.
At half, it was clear that Wisconsin wouldn’t be able to run over the ‘Cats as previously thought. Nate Hall’s return to the linebacking corp, sound tackling, and Coen’s inability to throw accurately allowed the Wildcat front seven to constrain Jonathan Taylor to just 33 yards on the ground. On offense, the ‘Cats found their groove with Thorson, who was 10/15, and Isaiah Bowser, who picked up 45 yards on 11 carries. Paul Chryst was unable to open up the passing game as Jack Coen struggled to move the ball down the field and the highly-regarded O-line couldn’t control the line of scrimmage.
Northwestern began the second half continuing right where they left off, as Thorson drove down the field on a 10 play, 70 yard drive aided by a roughing the kicker penalty that ended with Thorson dropping a 24-yard dime to Kyric McGowan, who bobbled the pass before maintaining possession as his right foot grazed the end zone. Down 21-10, Wisconsin badly needed an offensive spark to ignite their floundering offense, but Paddy Fisher forced Northwestern’s second fumble on Taylor, which Montre Hartage recovered to stop a burgeoning drive.
Looking to put the game away, Thorson engineered a drive into Badger territory capped off by a dazzling scramble on a designed quarterback run where Thorson started running left, saw no holes open, and reversed course before breaking a tackle on a 27-yard scamper into the red zone. A Charlie Kuhbander 34-yd field goal gave the ‘Cats a two touchdown advantage, 24-10.
Wisconsin missed a field goal to end a 3rd quarter that showcased Northwestern’s newfound offensive potency. The ‘Cats outgained Wisconsin 146-47, and recorded seven first downs. Bowser’s 80 yards helped Northwestern grind out the clock while Wisconsin’s counter parts found little success; Wisconsin was forced to involve their fullback Alec Ingold and backup Garrett Groshek due to Taylor’s ineffectiveness.
Unlike against Michigan, where the team folded over the last quarter and a half, Northwestern closed out the match strong. Jack Coen fumbled a snap near his own goal line, picked up the ball, and lost control once again as Nate Hall recovered at the ‘Cats third fumble of the game at the Wisconsin 13-yard line. Isaiah Bowser scored four plays later on a two-yard plunge to give Northwestern an insurmountable 31-10 lead.
Northwestern 31, Wisconsin 10— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) October 27, 2018
27 carries for 88 yards and a TD for Northwestern RB Isaiah Bowser. pic.twitter.com/7PLZrwW1Si
Shellshocked Wisconsin fans began piling out the stadium with about ten minutes left even as Northwestern ground out the rest of the game for a 31-17 victory.
After last week’s offensive malaise, Northwestern came out flaming to the tune of 349 yards and four touchdowns against a good but not great Wisconsin D. The key for the ‘Cats was in limiting Jonathan Taylor to less than 100 yards for the entire season, and preventing Coen from settling in. Pressure from Earnest Brown IV, Joe Gaziano, and the rest of the defensive line forced Coen into either tight inaccurate throws or a series of slants and easier reads that weren’t able to drive the ball down the field. Coach Pat Fitzgerald noted that the “next-man up” mentality and strong play by the entire depth chart contributed to the win.
“Our team is starting to improve,” Fitzgerald said. “I think we’re growing up. We had some growing pains early, but these guys have had faith. They’ve stayed the course. There's a return on investment, and our group has really been working in practice.”
Northwestern now has firm possession of first place in the West, but their journey to Indianapolis only gets more daunting from here. Coach Fitz and his squad know not to look too deeply into next weekend’s matchup with #3 Notre Dame, but the ‘Cats have done an excellent job of playing up to the level of competition they face. If Isaiah Bowser’s performances the past few weeks are indicative of a larger trend, Northwestern may find itself in the shocker of all shockers at Ryan Field next Saturday. Bowser himself would agree; when asked about the upcoming match, Bowser growled out what may be Northwestern’s mantra for this week: “Somebody’s got to beat them, so it might as well be us.”