For the second straight week, Northwestern (4-5, 3-2 B1G) lost to a top-10 conference opponent, falling 21-7 to No. 8 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 B1G). While Wisconsin was clearly the better team on Saturday, the ‘Cats were right in it for much of the game – until everything unraveled on one drive.
Down 13-7 early in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats appeared to be threatening. Quarterback Clayton Thorson and co. had been putting together a nice drive from their own 33, highlighted by a 32-yard pass to receiver Austin Carr on a third down. A few plays later, the ‘Cats snuck into the redzone and looked poised to score as they grabbed a first down at Wisconsin’s 19-yard line.
Just when things were looking bright, a few blunders (and maybe the substantially loud “Let’s go Badgers” chant by the mostly red Ryan Field crowd) killed the ‘Cats’ momentum. After a holding call and an incomplete pass gave the ‘Cats a 2nd-and-20 on the Wisconsin 30, they decided to hand off to Jackson (who struggled all game against a tough Wisconsin run defense), and he was promptly stuffed for a loss of one. On 3rd-and-21, Thorson was strip-sacked while trying to throw it away, and NU couldn’t recover the fumble or their momentum.
“We had momentum going into the fourth, and that just killed it,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You can’t do that and expect to beat a very good team.”
After Wisconsin returned the fumble to the NU 45, the Badgers calmly drove down what was left of the field with a balanced attack of pass and run, and running back Corey Clement capped off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. The subsequent two-point conversion made it 21-7 with just under nine minutes to play, and each subsequent drive ended with a punt or turnover on downs.
For much of the game, things didn’t look quite so bleak. The first quarter ended 0-0, and the defense looked like it was in “bend, but don’t break” mode. However, Wisconsin ended the scoring drought early in the second quarter with a 40-yard field goal (after missing a 35 yarder in the first). NU, in typical fashion, responded with a three-and-out that took barely over a minute.
Starting at their own 32, Wisconsin put together an impressive drive that was capped off by a 46-yard rushing touchdown by wide receiver Jazz Peavy. On a double reverse, nearly every Northwestern player bit on the first fake handoff, leaving Peavy with nothing but green and friendly white jerseys in front of him as he dashed into the endzone. Peavy finished with 144 all-purpose yards and a touchdown on the game.
Down 10-0, Northwestern put together a nice drive at the end of the first half to get back in the game. Thorson looked impressive in the two-minute drill, leading an eight-play, 87-yard drive that culminated in a 13-yard touchdown to Carr to make the score 10-7.
That touchdown, Carr’s 10th of the season, brought him to third in the NU record books for most receiving touchdowns in a season. Carr had yet another impressive game, finishing with 132 yards - which put him over 1,000 yards in the season for the first time in his career.
Carr was a lone bright spot in a game where the ‘Cats were manhandled up and down the field, especially in the trenches. Wisconsin ran all over the NU front 7, totaling 190 yards (including 112 by Clement). The Badgerss’ defensive line looked nearly as strong with two sacks and eight QB hurries compared to zero sacks and a singular hurry by NU’s pass rush.
The offensive line struggled even more – in addition to all the pressure allowed on the quarterback, the ‘Cats ran for only 39 yards, 28 of which came on one run by Jackson. The Badgers more than doubled NU’s time of possession, 40:25 to a mere 19:35. Without an efficient run game, the ‘Cats had trouble extending drives, going 5-of-18 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth down.
“We didn’t run the ball. Today was not good enough,” Fitzgerald said of the offensive line. “That was the difference in the game: our inability to run the football.”
After two straight relatively competitive losses to top-tier teams, NU ends the season against three easier opponents in Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois. Despite the losses, gritty performances in the past two games suggest that the ‘Cats should be able to win their final three games en route to a bowl game. In fact, ESPN’s most recent projection has them playing Utah in the National Funding Holiday Bowl (yes, this is a real bowl).