Wild­cats alone at the top

North­west­ern takes down the Badgers to take driver’s seat in Big TenWest

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - Sports - Teddy Green­stein tgreen­stein@chicagotri­bune.com Twit­ter@Ted­dyGreen­stein

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.”

JOHN J. KIM/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

North­west­ern quar­ter­back Clay­ton Thor­son, left, cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing a touch­down in the sec­ond quar­ter against Wis­con­sin at Ryan Field in Evanston on Satur­day.

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