After giving up a combined 146 points over their last three meetings in Camp Randall vs. the Wisconsin Badgers, Northwestern gave up just seven on Saturday, en route to a 13-7 victory. Behind an incredible defensive performance, the Wildcats shut the Badgers’ offense down and were able to do just enough on offense to come away with a win. Moving to 9-2 on the season and 5-2 in Big Ten play, Northwestern will have a chance to finish the regular season 10-2 for the first time ever when they take on Illinois at Soldier Field next Saturday. But first, let’s take a look at the numbers behind the ‘Cats’ victory over the Badgers in Madison.
In what may have been the Wildcats best defensive performance of the season, Northwestern forced five Wisconsin turnovers, while the ‘Cats offense committed zero of their own. Northwestern consistently pressure Wisconsin QB Joel Stave forcing him to make errant throws and put the ball on the ground with two fumbles. Matthew Harris forced another fumble, while Nick VanHoose and Anthony Walker came away with interceptions. And not only did the ‘Cats just force turnovers, they also broke up passes, five of them, preventing Wisconsin’s offense from getting anything going till their final drive. The ‘Cats defense gave the Wildcats a chance to win the game with the turnovers and consistently gave Northwestern great field position. The ‘Cats won the turnover battle, and in turn won the game.
But while Northwestern’s defense gave their offense great field position to work with, Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats couldn’t take advantage, scoring just 10 points off the 5 turnovers and keeping Wisconsin in the game. Had the ‘Cats scored just 13, one field goal more, off turnovers, the game would have been out of reach for Wisconsin. But instead Jack Mitchell missed two field goals and Northwestern wasn’t able to capitalize. Northwestern is among the worst teams in the nation at converting scoring and red zone opportunities and it showed Saturday, as the ‘Cats left points on the board and didn’t put the Badgers away till the end.
After a poor performance against Purdue last Saturday, Northwestern’s defense and specifically defensive line stepped up in a big way on Saturday, keep Wisconsin’s rushing offense in check with 11.0 tackles for a loss. Against a mediocre Wisconsin offensive line – No. 66 in the nation per S&P+ – Northwestern consistently got penetration, not only hurrying and sacking Joel Stave by preventing Wisconsin’s ground game from getting going. With 11.0 tackles for a loss Northwestern consistently forced the Badgers into third down and long situations and eventual punts, preventing the Badgers from every getting in any sort of rhythm.
Northwestern’s offense was ineffective to say the least in the second half, as the ‘Cats averaged only 1.5 yards per play and 6.8 yards per drive. Clinging to a slim lead after Corey Clement’s third quarter touchdown, the ‘Cats seemed resigned to run the ball often (73 percent of the time in the second half) in order to take time off the clock and avoid potential turnovers. That strategy got Northwestern the win, but the offense struggled to pick up first downs, extend drives or put points on the board that would have pushed the Wildcats’ lead to a more comfortable margin. Part of that had to do with Jack Mitchell missing two field goals and the offense’s predictable playcalling, but Northwestern will obviously need better production on offense to continue to win.
While Justin Jackson had an effective 139 yards on 35 carries, Wisconsin had little success on the ground. And by little, I mean the Badgers had a team total of -26 rushing yards. That number is skewed a bit by sack yardage accumulated by Stave, but taking that yardage out only gives Wisconsin 32 yards on 17 carries (1.9 yards per carry). Northwestern bottled up Dare Ogunbowale, Taiwan Deal and a banged-up Corey Clement all afternoon long, a far cry from their efforts against Wisconsin the past two years; the Badgers rushed for a staggering 284 yards last season in Evanston and 286 yards in the 2013 matchup at Camp Randall.
Not only were the tackles for loss a big key in this game, but the sacks were as well. The Wildcats sacked Stave six times, three of them coming from Deonte Gibson. One of those sacks by Gibson turned out to be arguably the biggest play of the game for Northwestern’s defense: after Jazz Peavy’s would-be go-ahead touchdown was overturned, Gibson got to Stave and dropped him for a 10 yard loss on the next play. This caused extra time to run off the clock and the Badgers’ fourth and goal play (after a spike) to be run from the 11-yard line instead of the 1-yard line. Not to mention, the hit also injured Stave to the point where he had to come out of the game. Backup Bart Houston’s pass was incomplete on fourth and goal, sealing the improbable win for the ‘Cats. Northwestern’s pressure on the quarterback was not only exceptional, but it was also clutch.