It truly was senior night Saturday at Ryan Field as the upperclassmen led the Northwestern Wildcats to an upset over highly ranked Wisconsin, beating the Badgers 33-31.
The seniors stole the show, led by quarterback Mike Kafka. Kafka completed 65 percent of his passes, throwing for 326 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Andrew Brewer was his primary target, ending his regular season career by catching six balls for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Another senior weapon on offense, wide receiver Zeke Markshausen, was relatively quiet catching the ball, but threw a pass 38 yards to junior receiver Sidney Stewart for a touchdown.
The defensive seniors played up to expectations as well. Safety Brad Phillips led the way with 12 tackles, including a sack, and added multiple key pass deflections. Defensive end Corey Wootton continued his late resurgence with four tackles and a sack of his own.
The ‘Cats were in control from the start, jumping out to a quick 10-0 lead after the first quarter behind effective passing by Kafka and staunch defense. After the Badgers erupted for 14 unanswered points to take the lead, though, the ‘Cats showed their resilience by finishing the half strong and went to the locker room behind a 27-14 lead.
At first, it looked like Northwestern was going to have another second half collapse. Wisconsin outscored the ‘Cats 10-3 in the third quarter behind the bludgeoning running style of sophomore halfback John Clay.
Clay, who is the frontrunner for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, finished the day with 100 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. His 6 foot 1 inch frame, supported by 248 pounds of pure muscle, wore down the ‘Cats defense over the course of the game.
Junior quarterback Scott Tolzien took advantage of the solid running game. He finished the day with 235 yards and two touchdowns, completing 19 of 30 passes on the day.
After an early Badgers touchdown in the fourth quarter, everything slowed down. The offenses suddenly stopped functioning, and began exchanging punts.
Wisconsin took over with just more than three minutes left in the game, and seemed like it was going to get in position for the winning field goal. But with 1:44 left in the game, junior linebacker Quentin Davie forced a Clay fumble, giving the ‘Cats the ball back. A Jordan Mabin interception in the final minute would seal the deal for Northwestern.
The victory puts the ‘Cats in great position for the Champs Sports Bowl, or at the very least the Alamo Bowl. The ‘Cats and Badgers will finish the year tied for fourth in the Big Ten with a conference record of 5-3, making Wisconsin’s game next week against Hawaii all-important. If the Badgers falter again, the ‘Cats could potentially jump to the Outback Bowl.