With another stellar performance from running back Justin Jackson (33 carries, 162 yards) and dominating team defense led by safety Godwin Igwebuike (eight tackles, three interceptions), Northwestern upset the No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers 20-14 on Saturday afternoon at Ryan Field. The Wildcats were consistent from start to finish on both sides of the ball, grinding out a passing touchdown to Dan Vitale and a rushing score from Miles Shuler.
Northwestern had trouble containing Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (27 rushes for 259 yards and one touchdown), but shut down Badger quarterbacks Joel Stave (eight for 19, 114 yards, three interceptions) and Tanner McEvoy (four for ten, 24 yards, one interception) with stellar defense from cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris, along with Igwebuike. The Wildcat front seven brought their incredible play from the Penn State win to Ryan Field, led by defensive ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Xavier Washington.
"We're playing with a lot more passion and physicality than earlier in the year," said coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We found a way to get the job done and the credit goes to our young men."
Four critical interceptions made the difference for Northwestern, there of which were made by Igwebuike. The redshirt freshman picked McEvoy on a pass tipped by defensive tackle Max Chapman with 9:19 left in the first quarter, took away a Stave pass in the Northwestern end zone late in the fourth quarter and intercepted another Stave throw over the middle with 18 seconds left in the game. Linebacker Jimmy Hall also picked off a pass tipped by Odenigbo with 7:05 left in the third quarter.
Steady was the word of the day for Northwestern's offense, led by Jackson, who added another stellar game to his fantastic freshman year. Quarterback Trevor Siemian continues to rebound from his lackluster start with sharp passes all over the field, a strong presence in the pocket and few mistakes and misfires. Wide receiver Kyle Prater (5 catches, 55 yards) cemented himself as a critical part of the Wildcat offense, and superback Dan Vitale helped put the Wildcats over with a key catch on third-and-three with three minutes to play.
Beyond the big picks and consistent runs was another dominant performance from punter Chris Gradone (seven punts, 251 yards, 35.1 yard average), who three times pinned Wisconsin behind its own 10-yard line.
And after head coach Pat Fitzgerald criticized his team for being undisciplined and sloppy against Penn State (eight penalties for 75 yards), the Wildcats were only penalized four times for 20 yards, compared to six Wisconsin flags for 49 yards.
"We talked to the guys about just doing what we do and they were a lot more settled in that way," said Fitzgerald, who insisted that the difference wasn't worth over-analyzing.
Northwestern received to start off the game and broke the opening tie with a 22-yard Jack Mitchell field goal with 4:19 left in the first quarter. The score was set up by Igwebuike's first pick. The Wildcats' first touchdown came on a 15-play, 80 yard drive capped off by a five-yard touchdown pass to Vitale. The Wildcats also scored on a 16-yard reverse handoff to Miles Shuler after Hall's interception and another 22-yard field goal from Mitchell.
Last year, the Wildcats lost to Wisconsin 35-6 in Madison, and Fitzgerald praised defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz for drawing up a much better plan for this go around.
Northwestern travels to Minneapolis next week to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) on Oct. 11. The game is scheduled to kick off at 11:00 a.m. CST.