MADISON – Remember what you were doing in 1999?
Vince Biegel was 6 years old, Sojourn Shelton was 5, Paul Chryst was an assistant in the N.F.L., the average gas price was $1.14 and senior tailback Ron Dayne rushed for 162 yards and two touchdowns to help No.11 Wisconsin overcome a sluggish performance in a 35-19 win over the unranked Wildcats.
Times have changed, but the Badgers’ bizarre struggles at Northwestern continue.
Four times since that 16-point victory Wisconsin has bused the 152 miles down to Northwestern’s stadium. All four times UW has entered as a top-20 team against an unranked Wildcats squad and found a way to lose by nine, three, two and six.
Wisconsin lost when it had a 200-yard rusher (Melvin Gordon – 259 in 2014), a 300-yard passer (John Stocco had 326 in 2005) and scoring 48 points (2009). According to UW athletics, Wisconsin is 151-2 when scoring at least 40 points. That dates back to 1889, and the two losses were to the Wildcats in 2000 (47-44 in double OT in Madison) and in 2005 (51-48).
And to add salt in the wounds, the Wildcats only home win over a FBS team in a 5-7 year was 20-14 over the Badgers.
“They don’t get a lot of credit for what they deserve,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “They are a great team. They play a lot of teams tough … They get overlooked.”
After a 1-3 start, including home losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State to begin the season and Nebraska to begin conference play, the Wildcats have won three of four, the only loss coming last week at Ohio State (24-20) in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minutes.
The Wildcats have won a pair of shootouts (scoring 38 at Iowa and 54 at Michigan State) and a grinder, holding Indiana’s explosive offense to only 14 points.
“It’s a team that has gotten better as the season has gone on,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s a credit to their players, their coaches.”
Northwestern sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson enters the game third in the league in passing yards (1,942), yards per game (242.8) and touchdowns (15), having thrown a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games and at least 250 yards in each of his last three games.
Junior running back Justin Jackson is second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (868) and rushing yards per game (108.5) and has averaged 127 yards per game during Big Ten play. He’s also averaged 150.5 yards per game against the Badgers in his career, including 139 yards and a touchdown in the 13-7 win last season.
And then there’s senior wide receiver Austin Carr, who had scored nine touchdowns in the six games leading into the Ohio State contest. The Buckeyes held him without a score, but Carr finished with a career-high 158 yards receiving on eight catches.
Despite teams knowing where the ball is going, Carr has 58 catches – 36 catches more than anyone on the roster - and is averaging 109.8 receiving yards per game, signaling that Northwestern successfully schemes the offense around giving Carr opportunities to catch the football.
“They can run the ball well, which always helps,” Chryst said. “You can’t focus on one part or the other. The scheme is such that they’ll spread you out. They’ve got good receivers that line up anywhere or can come out of the field. They make you defend the whole field and they’ll hurt you if you don’t.”
What has really hurt Wisconsin in the last two meetings is turnovers. The Wildcats forced four turnovers in the 2014 conference opener in Evanston and five a year ago.
Fans will remember Jazz Peavy’s overturned touchdown in last year’s defeat in Madison, but the Badgers were put in that position because the Wildcats defense held Wisconsin to minus-26 rushing yards, the first time UW was held to negative rushing yards since 2006.
“They showed us a lot of different looks and they were physical,” tailback Dare Ogunbowale said. “That was the biggest thing. They played physically against us last year and we have to make sure we do that this year. That was the biggest way they stopped us from running the ball last year was they played physical.”
Led by former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who Chryst worked with on former head coach Bret Bielema’s staff, Chryst said the Wildcats have a lot of talented pieces who are playing confident.
“It’s always a really fundamentally sound defense,” Chryst said. “Kids know what to do and taught how to do it. He’s got answers, and he does a good job. If something is a strength, he’s got an answer and can go to it without compromising another part of the defense. He doesn’t necessarily overreact. He’s a guy who loves the game of football and coaches his players the right way.”
After playing four top-10 teams in the first five weeks of conference season, Wisconsin doesn’t face another team currently ranked in the top 25 the rest of the regular season. Considering the history in Evanston, the Badgers know better if they think it’s a cake walk the rest of the way.
“There was going to be a lot of outside noise that doesn’t help you as a player or us as a team,” Chryst said. “It has no impact. We’ve got smart guys here, and they understand. You put on the tape (of Northwestern) and you know. I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a football season where November was an easy month.
“We know that this is a tough stretch ahead of us, and each week is a different challenge.”