A week after hammering Penn State 29-6 in Happy Valley, the ‘Cats returned home for a date with No. 17 Wisconsin and shocked the Badgers 20-14. The win moves Northwestern to 2-0 in the Big Ten, something that would have been unthinkable only two weeks ago.
But these Wildcats clearly don’t care what anybody thinks.
“We’re a work in progress,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The reason why we’ve been successful now for a couple weeks is because the guys are really investing greatly during the week. They’re putting in the time individually and collectively to study their opponent.”
The secondary was the story for Northwestern, as redshirt freshman Igwebuike (making his first ever college start) came up with two massive interceptions in the endzone to keep Wisconsin off the board. He added another with seconds left in the fourth quarter to seal the victory and finish off the Badgers as they tried to mount a game-winning drive.
“I knew it was going to be my time to step up in this game with the injury to Ibrahiem [Campbell]. I went back to the drawing board and just prepared myself, prepared like I’ve never prepared before and it paid off,” Igwebuike said.
Wisconsin was lead by star halfback Melvin Gordon, who rushed for a modest 259 yards on the ground. On paper, this should have been enough to carry the Badgers, except Wisconsin couldn’t muster anything else when the offense had the football.
The ‘Cats were lead on offense by true freshman halfback Justin Jackson, who paced the Northwestern ground attack with 162 rushing yards of his own. Jackson has emerged from a crowded NU backfield to give Northwestern a real playmaker at running back and someone they can turn to in crucial moments.
The game began for the ‘Cats much the way the Penn State game ended. The defense came up with a couple huge plays but the offense failed to finish chances and let the Badgers stay in the game.
“When he had some things going well, Melvin ends up being Melvin,” Fitzgerald said. “They do so many things formationally that give you problems.”
In the second quarter, the offense started to click. An 80-yard Northwestern drive was capped off by a five-yard Trevor Siemian touchdown pass to junior superback Dan Vitale as the ‘Cats grabbed a 10-0 lead going into halftime.
It marks the second straight week Wisconsin has been held scoreless in the first half. But as they have all season, the Badgers woke up after halftime and made it a football game.
After a two-yard Melvin Gordon touchdown run made it 10-7, Wisconsin got the ball back with a chance to take the lead. But senior linebacker Jimmy Hall came up with a huge interception off a tipped ball (courtesy of NBN super-friend Ifeadi Odenigbo) and set the Wildcats up with great field postion inside the Wisconsin red zone. One play later, Miles Schuler took a reverse handoff all the way to house and gave the ‘Cats a 17-7 lead midway through the third quarter.
But even after a Jack Mitchell field goal made it 20-7 Northwestern, the Badgers still had a chance to rally and claim victory. A quick Wisconsin touchdown cut the lead to six and the ‘Cats weren’t able to run much clock on offense.
The Badgers got the ball back with about a minute left and a chance to win. Northwestern fans could be excused for flashing back to the Hail Mary against Nebraska and fire-drill field goal against Michigan. Would the Wildcat faithful have their hearts broken once again?
Igwebuike snagged his third interception of the game (tying a school record that has stood for almost half a century) and then it was bedlam at Ryan Field. The students stormed the field and Wisconsin fans streamed towards the parking lot, a somber exodus clad in red. The Badgers winless streak at Ryan Field will run to 15 years.
Northwestern fans can be excused for looking at the remainder of the schedule and starting to dream. Games that many fans had marked down as losses before the season haven’t turned out that way. The ‘Cats are now 3-2 and sit in first place in the Big Ten West with a perfect 2-0 conference record. While Wildcat fans may be starting to look at hotel rooms in Indy, the players remained focus on the road ahead.
“We try to take just one game at time. We don’t look to far ahead in the future,” sophomore cornerback Matt Harris said. “That’s when we’re going to end up with a loss. Wisconsin’s in the past. Minnesota’s up next.”
I don’t know about you, but with words like that, I’d hate to be Minnesota.
Godwin Igwebuike: Perhaps no player was more responsible for the ‘Cats victory today that Igwebuike. The freshman grabbed three interceptions, including two in the endzone and the pick that sealed the game, as he filled in for the injured the Ibrahiem Campbell. Not bad for a guy making his first college start.
Chris Gradone: The Wildcats’ punter deserves some love after he helped keep the Badger’s offense from getting anything going in the first half. Wisconsin began their respective drives from the 6-, 10-, 4-, 24- and 9-yard lines before halftime and they failed to score a single point. Punters don’t usually get a lot of credit for a team’s success but Gradone certainly made an impact today.
The future: Look at the rest of the Wildcat’s schedule and tell me you’re not excited about this team’s chances. Granted there’s still plenty of time for things to go belly up, but Northwestern currently sits in first place in the Big Ten West with six conference games left. We’ve gone from talking about this team’s chances to make it a bowl game to their chances of winning the Big Ten. Or at least I have.
Uhh…the weather I guess: Not much went wrong for the Wildcats on Saturday but the weather definitely wasn’t great. The word “snow” was tossed around for the first time this year, and for somebody from Florida like me, that’s not great news.
Not the NU fans: This is normally where I would complain about the student section being only 40 percent full and the fact that we were playing Wisconsin (the one team we always beat at home). But you know what? I’m over that. I talked to people who watched this game on TV and apparently you couldn’t even tell. And when the fans stormed the field after the game, it made me realize why I love Northwestern so much in the first place. Host Obama? Check. Beat Wisconsin? Check. I really love this school.
Wisconsin fans: Na Na Na Na…Na Na Na Na…Hey Hey Hey Goodbye!
Editor's Note: The headline of this story was changed to correct the spelling of Igwebuike's name. North by Northwestern regrets the original error.