EVANSTON, Ill. – Almost a year has passed and tight end Troy Fumagalli still refuses to get into the debate about whether receiver Jazz Peavy did or did not make the touchdown catch in the final minutes of Wisconsin’s 13-7 loss to Northwestern last November.
He will tell you, however, that the Badgers’ failures in the 58+ minutes leading up to that play put Wisconsin in position to lose a game that eliminated them from Big Ten West Division contention.
“There was so much we could have done before that to not be put in that situation,” Fumagalli said. “You look at what we did last year, it wasn’t all that impressive.”
A perfect 3-0 against unranked teams this season, No.8 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) is treating its road game at Northwestern (4-4, 3-2) this morning like the Wildcats are the top-ranked team in the country. Considering how the Badgers have played against the Wildcats in recent history, it’s not a bad approach.
Northwestern has won six of the last 10 meetings between the teams by an average of 4.8 points. Players describe the Wildcats as a physical program that will be prepared to hit the Badgers in the mouth. It’s the typical M.O. for the Wildcats since former Northwestern linebacker Pat Fitzgerald started calling the shots in 2006, but one UW has struggles at times to match.
Part of the problem: turnovers. People will remember Peavy's touchdown catch being overturned in the final minutes, but the real problem was Wisconsin committed five turnovers in last season’s home defeat. Northwestern turned those mistakes into 10 points and didn’t commit any turnovers.
A year before that, the Wildcats’ only FBS home win that season was over Wisconsin, as the Badgers’ four turnovers led to 10 more Wildcats points in a 20-14 defeat.
“That has been a problem,” tailback Dare Ogunbowale said. “We make sure guys are all on board with valuing possessions and not turning the ball over. We didn't do that last year. We want to make sure we don’t do that this year.”
The other part of the problem for the Badgers has been playing at Ryan Field, the smallest venue in the Big Ten (47,330) that has sucked the life out of Wisconsin for whatever the reason.
“It’s different,” Fumagalli said of the stadium. “We get a lot of red there. It’s an older stadium. The weather usually doesn’t cooperate with us. It’s definitely different and …”
Fumagalli stopped short of calling it a high school stadium disguised as a Big Ten venue, or worse, because he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Even with the plenty of Wisconsin fans making the short drive to the stadium on the north side of Chicago, the Badgers have lost their last four trips to Northwestern, a much-talked-about streak that dates back to 1999.
“It’s lower energy,” Fumagalli said. “We played a night game like (Nebraska last week), it’ll be huge this week of bringing our energy. It’s another 11 a.m. game, early wake up.”
Northwestern appeared to have fallen into that lull in September. The Wildcats were written off after their four game home stand to start the season began 1-3, including a 9-7 loss to Illinois State to drop to 0-2. Thanks to back-to-back road wins at Iowa and Michigan State, the Wildcats are two wins away from qualifying for consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2011-12.
“Northwestern has really started to gain momentum throughout the season,” outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “They started finding an identity and it shows on film. They are a talented football team.”
This is the highest ranked Wisconsin team to visit Northwestern since 1942. That squad struggled against an unranked Wildcats squad but managed a 20-19 victory. A win for Wisconsin today keep the Badgers in the running to win the Big Ten West Division title and opens the door for a possible rematch against Ohio State or Michigan. A loss makes things extremely difficult, meaning the Badgers need to exorcise their demons in order to achieve their end-of-season goals.
“Wisconsin is going to have to bring their ‘A’ game and have that same confidence and that same mindset that we’ve had every week up to this point,” Biegel said. “We have to continue to have that the rest of the season if we want to Big Ten West champs.”