Wildcats alone at the top
Northwestern takes down the Badgers to take driver’s seat in Big TenWest
ESPN ran a graphic this week listing contenders to win the Big Ten. Michigan and Ohio State were at the top, of course. Then Wisconsin and Iowa. And Purdue.
Not listed: Northwestern, even though the Wildcats entered the week atop the Big Ten West standings. If the Wildcats felt dissed, they channeled that into a strong performance against the sloppy Badgers in a 31-17 victory.
“We’re in the driver’s seat in the West,” linebacker Paddy Fisher said.
Told his statement is the closest a Northwestern player ever comes to talking smack, Fisher replied:“We have a lot of energy right now, a lot of momentum. Just speaking truth. We’re in the driver’s seat.”
That they are. Northwestern (5-3 overall, 5-1 BigTen) helped to dethrone perennial Big TenWest champ Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2). And it already beat Purdue (4-4, 3-2), which lost Saturday at Michigan State.
Northwestern visits Iowa (6-2, 3-2) on Nov. 10 with a potential trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game on the line. Who saw that coming after the Wildcats gave up 36 second-half points to Akron?
“These guys stayed the course; they had faith,” coachPat Fitzgerald said. “I think we’re growing up.”
The players expected this victory, but some fans opted to celebrate postgame and joined players for the singing of the fight song. Itwasn’t so much a fieldstorming as, well, a fieldgathering. Pretty tame.
“I’m not going to discredit the fans; I love that they’re into it,” Fisher said. “Itwas cool.”
This performance will add some juice to Notre Dame’s visit next Saturday night— the biggest game at Ryan Field since 2013, when Ohio State and ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to town.
“Somebody has to beat ’ em,” Northwestern tailback Isaiah Bowser said of the Irish. “Might aswell be us.”
The Wildcats have played erratically this season, but one thing has held true. America’s Greatest Underdog thrives when counted out. Northwestern beat Purdue in the season opener, took Michigan to the wire, flipped its season against Michigan State in East Lansing and beat up the Badgers on Saturday.
With Alex Hornibrook in concussion protocol, sophomore Jack Coan got his first career start and was unremarkable, finishing 20-for-31 with 158 yards and one touchdown.
A failed exchange with Jonathan Taylor set Northwestern up at theWisconsin 15 in the second quarter. Coan’s newness might have been a factor, but Taylor has a history: He put it on the ground twice Saturday, marking 10 career fumbles and four this season.
The nation’s leading rusher (158.4 yards per game) carried it 11 times for a season-low46yards.
“Whoever it is running backwise, quarterback-wise, that’s the goal: Stop the run,” Fisher said. “We did that today.”
On the flip side, Northwestern gained a season-high 182 yards on the ground. Freshman Isaiah Bowser (117 yards on 34 carries) led theway.
“He’ll be sore tomorrow,” Fitzgerald said.
Clayton Thorson made some good throws — namely a 24-yard strike to Kyric McGowan in the back of the end zone.
He also threw three interceptions. One was an up-for-grabs fling at the end of the first half but the other two were concerning— linebacker Ryan Connelly made a great break on one, and Thorson fired another to linebacker Zack Baun.
That pick came at a mystifying time — on first-and-10 after Northwestern had taken a threetouchdown lead.
Fitzgerald said there was a miscommunication because it actually was supposed to be a running play.
“I would prefer,” he said tongue-in-cheek, “that we don’t do that in the future.”
Thorson finished just 17-for-30 for 167 yards but he did have a terrific scrambling touchdown, juking Connelly on a 5-yard score.
“I have negative rushing yards on the year,” Thorson noted, cleverly adding, “trying to put a dent into that.”
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, left, celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against Wisconsin at Ryan Field in Evanston on Saturday.