Budding Rivalry

Despite being separated by less than 150 miles, Wisconsin and Northwestern have sprung a great rivalry with only two games in the last six years. With new divisions on the way and the Wildcats taking bigger steps forward, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees a good rivalry starting to build.

CHICAGO - Although its campuses are separated by only 140 miles, the third shortest commute in the Big Ten, the rivalry between Wisconsin and Northwestern rivalry has never gotten as much attention compared to Wisconsin's games against Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota or Ohio State.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thinks that is going to change.

With the Big Ten splitting into an East-West lineup for the 2014 season to accommodate the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, Wisconsin and Northwestern will sit in the same division with Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Purdue.

"I am fired up about the East and the West," said Fitzgerald during last week's Big Ten preseason meetings. "I think that's great for Big Ten football. I love it for our players and our fans, especially our Chicagoland fans. They won't have to get into a plane to watch a league game. That's kind of neat."

It's a rivalry that only seems natural because of the proximity, but one that hasn't blossomed because of the conference's unbalanced schedule. While Wisconsin has played Minnesota on a yearly basis and played Iowa every year from 1937 to 2010, Wisconsin has only played Northwestern twice since 2007. And while Wisconsin has played at Michigan State three times since 2008, Wisconsin has traveled to Evanston only three times since 1999.

But every good rivalry needs competitive balance, something Northwestern is starting to achieve with Wisconsin. Since dominating the Wildcats 1972-99, going 24-11 over that time frame, Wisconsin is 3-4 against Northwestern in its last seven meetings with three decided by less than a field goal.

"Our last decade of games has been awesome," said Fitzgerald, throwing out the 70-23 beating his team suffered at the end of the 2010 regular season. "Most of the games have been competitive for the last handful of years. I think it's great for our fans. I think it's terrific for our fans."

Parallels can be drawn between the two programs in recent history. Wisconsin's program got jumpstarted in the early 1990s by Barry Alvarez, whose renaissance has helped Wisconsin play in six Rose Bowls since 1993.

Northwestern's turnover started around the same time when Gary Barnett led Northwestern to back-to-back Big Ten championships in 1995-96 (winning the title outright in 1995) and a spot in the 1996 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats' brand has gotten stronger under Fitzgerald, who is coming off the program's first 10-win season since 1995 and their first bowl win since the 1948 Rose Bowl.

"It's great for two teams that over time have really respected one another (to play each other)," said Fitzgerald.

Wisconsin will host Northwestern on Oct. 12 at 2:30 p.m.

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