Thorson leads Wildcats to victory
Defeat of Badgers strengthens chance for shot at Big Ten title game
EVANSTON, ILL. — This was no narrow escape for Northwesten against a struggling opponent. Not this weekend.
The Wildcats took out one of the Big Ten’s heavyweights and strengthened their chance for a spot in the conference championship game.
Clayton Thorson ran for two touchdowns and threw for one, and Northwestern beat No. 20 Wisconsin, 31-17, on Saturday.
The first-place Wildcats (5-3, 5-1) solidified themselves as contenders for the Big Ten West championship while gaining some revenge for a loss at Camp Randall Stadium early last season that helped prevent them from winning the division.
They increased their lead over the Badgers (5-3, 3-2) and Purdue — a 23-13 loser at Michigan State — to 11⁄2 games. Iowa, which began the day tied with the Boilermakers and Wisconsin, visited No. 17 Penn State.
With quarterback Alex Hornibrook sidelined by a concussion and the defense without several injured starters, it was simply a rough afternoon for Wisconsin. Northwestern turned two fumbles by star running back Jonathan Taylor and another by quarterback Jack Coan into 17 points on the way to its fourth straight victory.
The Wildcats went on a 17-0 run in the second half after rallying to beat thenwinless Nebraska in overtime and topping struggling Rutgers by three last weekend.
“Around here, a lot of times we’re called the Cardiac ’Cats,” Thorson said. “I don’t know how much we like that name. But we haven’t given anyone any reason not to call us that so it’s nice to get a win like that.”
Northwestern struggled early on for the second straight season. Now, the Wildcats have their sights set on their first appearance in a Big Ten championship game.
“I think our team is starting to improve,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think we’re growing up. There were some growing pains there early. I think these guys have had faith. They just stayed the course, had belief and are getting a reward for that effort. They can’t stop now.”
Thorson was a bit shaky again after struggling in a narrow win at Rutgers. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 167 yards with three interceptions against a short-handed defense. But he ran for two TDs in the first half and found Kyric McGowan for a 24-yard score in the third quarter.
Freshman Isaiah Bowser had his second straight 100-yard rushing game, finishing with 117 on 34 attempts. He scored on a 2-yard run early in the fourth, making it 31-10 after Coan fumbled.
“I was proud of the effort certainly of a lot of our guys, but we need to play better football,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “We need to take better care of the football. When you turn it over and you’re backed up in the opponent’s red zone, that’s hard.”
Coan was 20 of 31 for 158 yards and a touchdown in his first career start.
Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher, ran for just 46 yards on 11 carries after finishing with 100 or more in eight straight games.
Garrett Groshek ran for 68 on seven attempts.
Northwestern was leading 14-10 early in the third when Wisconsin’s Jack Sanborn got flagged for roughing the punter. That set up Thorson’s touchdown pass to McGowan in the back of the end zone.
Taylor then lost his second fumble of the game when Paddy Fisher poked the ball out as he was tackled and Montre Hartage recovered at the Wisconsin 42. That led to a 26-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander, making it 24-10 with 2:39 left in the quarter.