Breaking Down Northwestern’s Victory Over Wisconsin

WNUR’s Max Gelman explains how Northwestern upset 17th-ranked Wisconsin Saturday at Ryan Field.

 One Nation, Under Godwin: Arguably the biggest reason why Northwestern emerged victorious was its ability to shut down Wisconsin’s passing game. Led by redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike, who had three interceptions on the day (two coming in the endzone, with his third effectively ending the game), the Wildcats held the Badgers to a measly 138 yards through the air. Forty-three of those yards came on a two play, 22 second drive late in the fourth quarter; for the other 28 minutes and 53 seconds that Wisconsin possessed the ball Northwestern only allowed Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy to throw for a combined 95 yards. As a result, the Badgers’ offense looked one-dimensional, although that dimension was ridiculously explosive with running back Melvin Gordon setting a new career high for rushing yards. The Wildcat defense exposed Wisconsin’s biggest weakness, adding to the credibility of Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s game planning.

Under Pressure: Northwestern’s defensive front helped shut down Wisconsin’s aerial attack. While the Wildcats only recorded one sack, they repeatedly pressured the quarterback, batted down passes, and forced him out of the pocket. In fact, all four Wildcat interceptions came on throws where they hit the quarterback, tipped the pass, or flushed Joel Stave out of the pocket. Northwestern needs to string together strong defensive performances if it wants to have a chance at a Big Ten championship. If they play like they did today for the rest of the season, the Wildcats have every reason for optimism.

Field (Position) of Dreams: If the Wildcats wanted to slow down Wisconsin’s offense, which had scored 20 or more points in 17 straight games, winning the field position battle would be key. Northwestern punter Chris Gradone was up to the task, pinning the Badgers inside their own 10 three times. He almost had a fourth such punt, however it rolled into the endzone for a touchback just inches away from the out-of-bounds-side of the pylon. Furthermore, all but two of Wisconsin’s drives began inside their own 25. Special teams has been a strength for the Wildcats all season, and this game proved no different with Gradone emerging as the under-the-radar hero.

Go Four It!: During Northwestern’s best drive of the game – a 15 play, 80 yard masterpiece that ate up almost half of the second quarter – Fitzgerald had two tough decisions to make. With the Wildcats facing 4th-and-2 at the Badgers’ 25 yard line, Fitzgerald called a run up the middle. Running back Warren Long barreled his way for a first down through the ten Badgers lined up in the box. The Wildcats faced a 4th-and-4 on the very next set of downs, and after Wisconsin called a timeout split-seconds before Northwestern’s fake field goal attempt, Trevor Siemian connected with slot receiver Miles Shuler for a seven yard gain. These gutsy calls kept the momentum in the Wildcats’ favor as Siemian and super back Dan Vitale connected two plays later for a touchdown.

Killer P’s: Not only did Northwestern outplay and outcoach Wisconsin in almost all aspects of the game, the ‘Cats also got help from some untimely Badger miscues. With the Wildcats up 20-7 early in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin drove down the field. They eventually reached the red zone, where they handed the ball to Melvin Gordon. Gordon ran hard to the Northwestern five yard line, but an offensive holding call nullified the play. What would have been 1st-and-goal became 2nd-and-21. Furthermore, on the proceeding 4th-and-21, the Badgers kept their offense on the field but drew a delay of game penalty. Wisconsin then elected to punt, deflating what had been one of their most successful drives to that point.

 Heisman Hopeful Favorite?: Coming into this game, Wisconsin had the fourth-best rushing attack in the country, averaging almost 350 yards per game. Running back Melvin Gordon is the team’s leading rusher and an emerging Heisman trophy candidate. Gordon shredded the Wildcats for 259 yards on 27 carries (9.6 average), ripping off long runs of 61 and 58 yards just one week after Northwestern held Penn State to 50 rushing yards. There wasn’t much Northwestern could do since Gordon is one of the most electrifying backs in the country, but if the Wildcats want to keep winning they’ll have to perform better at the line of scrimmage.

Freshman Justin Jackson led Northwestern through 17th-ranked Wisconsin on Saturday. Max Gelman breaks the game down. Photo Credit: Nam Huh. AP

Freshman Justin Jackson led Northwestern through 17th-ranked Wisconsin on Saturday. Max Gelman breaks the game down. Photo Credit: Nam Huh. AP

Reverend Jackson: On the other side of the line, freshman running back Justin Jackson had his best performance to date. He ran the ball 33 times for 162 yards, easily his highest totals of the season. Jackson is starting to make a name for himself as a workhorse back for the Wildcats, proving that he can handle large workloads without tiring late in the game. Northwestern may have found its next premier offensive player that can churn out weekly highlight reel plays.

What’s Next: The Wildcats (3-2, 2-0) travel to Minnesota to face the Golden Gophers (4-1, 1-0). Minnesota’s passing offense averages only 113.2 yards per game and should be a feasting ground for Northwestern’s defense. If the Wildcats can start off conference play at 3-0, they will keep the pressure on preseason favorites Wisconsin and Nebraska in their search for a Big Ten title.

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