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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern beats Wisconsin 13-7 after dramatic, controversial finish

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wisconsin -- As snowballs rained down upon the field, targeted at the referees upon whom No. 25 Wisconsin fans blamed their team's dramatic 13-7 loss to No. 20 Northwestern, the Wildcats celebrated, moving to 9-2 on the season.

Wisconsin had a chance to win the game with a touchdown and extra point as quarterback Joel Stave led the offense on a drive that began at the Badgers' 26 with 1:47 remaining in the game. He drove his team down the field and Wisconsin appeared to score twice, once on a long pass to Troy Fumagalli (who was ruled down on the one upon a review) and on a pass to Jazz Peavy the next play, who appeared to catch it in the end zone but was ruled incomplete on the review. On the following play, Stave was sacked by Deonte Gibson, setting up a fourth-and-11 with six seconds left. Stave was forced out of the game on that play and backup Bart Houston came in. His pass fell incomplete, sealing the victory for Northwestern.

The first half began well for the Wildcats, as the offense capitalized on a tipped Joel Stave interception by Nick VanHoose. Taking advantage of the short field, Justin Jackson finished the drive off with an eight-yard touchdown run, his third of the season.

The next drive, Northwestern looked poised to take advantage of yet another Wisconsin turnover -- this time a fumble by quarterback-turned-wide-receiver-and-safety Tanner McEvoy. Dean Lowry picked up the fumble and scampered down the sideline, setting up Northwestern for another scoring opportunity. But Jack Mitchell booted a 27-yard field goal wide, which kept the score at 7-0 as the first quarter ended.

After trading a handful of punts, Northwestern went on an eight-play, 64-yard drive ending with a made 35-yard Mitchell field goal to go into halftime with a 10-0 lead.

On the first drive of the second half, Northwestern took the ball into Wisconsin territory before stalling after failing to convert a fourth-and-one. Wisconsin then had its best drive of the day, going 64 yards in five plays, ending with a Corey Clement touchdown run to cut Northwestern's lead to three.

Following a three-and-out on Northwestern's next possession, Wisconsin wide receiver Alex Erickson appeared to take a Hunter Niswander punt back for a touchdown, but the referees called it back because Erickson made a motion that could have been interpreted as a fair-catch signal. On his next punt return attempt, Erickson muffed it and Matthew Harris recovered at the Wisconsin 30.

But, again, Northwestern was unable to convert on the turnover as Mitchell missed a 40-yarder a few plays later.

A few possessions later, Stave fumbled on a Tyler Lancaster sack at the Badgers own 44-yard-line. And to the surprise of few, Northwestern stalled and punted on fourth and seven from Wisconsin's 34. Stave's response: an interception to Anthony Walker, setting the Wildcats up at the Badgers' 20. And after a seven-play drive that went for zero (yes, zero) yards, Mitchell knocked in a 37-yarder, making it 13-7 Northwestern with four minutes left.

Northwestern's run defense shows up

On a frigid day in Madison, both teams were expected to make a conscious effort to dominate the ground game and the Wildcats' defense stifled the Badgers' rushing attack. Wisconsin finished with an astounding -26 yards (with lost sack yardage) on the ground. As they usually do, Northwestern's linebackers were effective working straight downhill and were only caught out of position when Wisconsin's running backs were patient enough to allow the linebackers to over-pursue.

Safeties Terrance Brown (who started for the injured Traveon Henry) and Godwin Igwebuike also added support in the run game. The defensive line was also effective at stringing out runs toward the sideline with Lowry making a bunch of key stops.

Turnovers

Wisconsin fumbled the ball five times and Northwestern recovered three. Stave also tossed two interceptions. But the Wildcats converted just 10 points off those five Badger miscues. On the other side, Northwestern didn't turn the ball over once, allowing even the possessions that didn't end in points to at least force Wisconsin to cover a longer field.

Last season, Wisconsin committed four turnovers (all interceptions) against Northwestern while Northwestern was turnover-free. The Wildcats won that game 20-14.

What it means:

Northwestern, however improbable it may have been, moved to 9-2 on the season keeping the dream of an 11-win season alive, which would be the most wins by any Northwestern football team in a season ever. In terms of bowls, the Wildcats kept their chances of a New Year's Day game intact and moved to second place in the Big Ten West.