All week, Northwestern football (5-0) had been looking forward to their Saturday matchup against No. 10 Wisconsin (2-1). The game, held between the two remaining undefeated teams in the West Division, was seen as a sort of “semi-final” by many, as the winner would gain sole possession of the West lead, and have complete control over their destiny for the rest of the regular season. In other words, the winner would be in the driver’s seat on the road to the Big Ten Championship.
Buckle up, ’Cats fans.
Northwestern beat the No. 10 Badgers 17-7 Saturday afternoon, in a true measure of grit and grind. After trading scores early in the first half, the ’Cats continued their trend of locking down on defense late, holding the Badgers to no points throughout the last three quarters, as well as allowing no plays in the red zone.
The story of the game continued to be the ’Cats’ outstanding defense, as they forced a whopping five turnovers with three interceptions and two fumbles. First-year defensive back Brandon Joseph continued to turn heads with two interceptions, while senior linebacker Blake Gallagher recorded a team-high 14 tackles, including a sack and his first career forced fumble. For their efforts, both Joseph and Gallagher received accolades from the Big Ten, with Joseph being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the second time this year, and Gallagher being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
“I think our guys rose to the occasion and the opportunity tonight,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald after the game. “[We] do it to the best of our ability. [I give] our D-line credit, our linebackers were active again… really proud of our defense right now. I mean, they're playing lights out.”
It wasn’t the greatest showing on the other side of the ball, but the ’Cats continued to see production from their key players. Graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey went 23-for-44 for 203 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and senior wideout Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman continued to shine, leading all receivers with 95 receiving yards and catching another touchdown.
Wisconsin was led in their effort by first-year quarterback Graham Mertz, who went 23-for-41 with 230 yards and a touchdown, but also threw a key three interceptions. Their rushing attack was led by first-year running back Jalen Berger, who led all rushers with 93 yards. Wisconsin was also playing a bit shorthanded due to many of its players still being on the COVID-19 exposure list, especially with their receiving core.
At first, it seemed like the game would be a spectacle of flash and flair for both teams. After Northwestern forced Wisconsin to go three-and-out on their first drive, the Badgers penalized the ’Cats with continuing pass interference penalties, allowing the ’Cats to set up nicely in the red zone; Peyton Ramsey found junior tight end Charlie Mangieri in the back of the end zone, and the ’Cats led 7-0 early.
Wisconsin tried to respond quickly by running the ball up the middle, but senior linebacker Paddy Fisher continued to show his abilities and forced a fumble, recovered by Gallagher. On the very next play, Northwestern went to the back of the playbook and showed Evanston exactly how good the offense could be: a triple reverse handoff to senior wideout Riley Lees, who heaved a bomb down the sideline and found Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman near the end zone.
Of course, this is Northwestern; junior running back Isaiah Bowser fumbled the ball on the next play, giving Wisconsin the ball back. Working quickly, the Wisconsin offense got the ball to midfield before Mertz heaved a deep bomb to first-year wideout Chimere Dike, who broke a tackle and scored a 49-yard touchdown.
“We can't fumble the ball on the goal line, that's a huge swing and momentum,” Fitzgerald said. “It's a huge swing in the game early against a great team. That can't happen… we've got to take care of the ball, especially down in the scoring zone.”
After that, it became a game of inches for both squads, as Northwestern’s offense couldn’t seem to break through Wisconsin’s mighty front lines, while Wisconsin kept losing the ball to fantastic defensive play by the ’Cats. Finally, with two minutes left in the second, Peyton Ramsey turned in a fantastic drive that got the ’Cats grooving: seven plays, all passing, to set up for the score, a 25 yard beauty to Chiaokhiao Bowman. At the half, the ’Cats led 14-7.
“Wisconsin, they've got one of the best, if not the best, defenses in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “But that was a critical drive. absolutely critical… Peyton showed his experience tonight. He took what the defense gave him, he didn't force anything, and we're just so thankful that he's a part of our football family and just doing a terrific job leading.”
This is where the game got fun for football fundamentalists, and boring for those who love pizzazz: Northwestern and Wisconsin played a game of defensive chess that brought football back to its gritty, grinding roots, with neither team gaining much momentum. The teams traded nine total punts in the third quarter, and the ’Cats finally iced the game in the fourth with a 32 yard field goal from Charlie Kuhbander. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t pretty, but the ’Cats had made a statement: they had locked down one of the best teams in the country.
“I think tonight was a team effort, I thought we played pretty solid complimentary football,” Fitzgerald said. “It starts with our seniors and our upperclassmen leadership permeates through the entire locker room, and we know we can still play better.
The win allowed Northwestern to reach as high as No. 11 in the latest AP Poll, the highest Northwestern has been ranked since 1996. It also moved them into sole possession of the Big Ten West, and with only three games to go, it is almost a certainty that the team will be playing in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 19.
Northwestern will now travel to East Lansing over Thanksgiving to play the Michigan State Spartans (1-3). With the eyes of the country on them, the ’Cats will attempt to prove just how much gas they have left in the tank.