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Northwestern holds on for enormous win at Wisconsin, despite controversial circumstances

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The Wildcats were the better team on Saturday in Madison, and got the win they deserved.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Will we ever truly know what a catch is? After Northwestern’s dramatic 13-7 victory at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, the world may never know.

Northwestern led from the first quarter and played great defense for the entire game, but they appeared to be on the verge of a stunning collapse after Wisconsin scored a game-winning touchdown with under 30 seconds left on the clock. Then the referees overturned Wisconsin’s game-winning touchdown because the receiver’s knee was down at the one-yard line.

Then, Wisconsin wide receiver Jazz Peavy apparently caught the game-winning pass on the next play, but the refs determined that Peavy did not gain possession of the ball. After a Wisconsin incompletion on fourth down, Northwestern regained possession on a turnover on downs and kneeled the ball to seal the win. Just like that, Northwestern improbably improved to 9-2 on the season. After the game, both teams were a bit shellshocked at what happened.

"I’m still kinda speechless…I’m not sure how that just unfolded, but it did." said Coach Pat Fitzgerald in the postgame press conference.

Understandably, Wisconsin's coach, Paul Chryst, was a little more perturbed about the game's crazy twists and turns than Fitzgerald. He was notably terse in his post-game comments.

"I thought he [Peavy] had gotten a few feet down…But, it doesn’t matter what I think," said Paul Chryst (from an interview at Scout.com). 

Alright, let’s get this discussion out of the way first.

"I guess I just don’t know what a catch is…I don’t understand what happened. [I thought] for sure that was a catch…No doubt in my mind," said Peavy afterwards.

No one seems to definitively know what a catch is supposed to look like, and the referees may not know for sure either. According to the rules, Peavy did not have complete possession of the football, but it's hard to understand what "possession" entails anymore.

It appeared as if Peavy had possession for a certain amount of time, and then he lost control of the ball. From the press box, it looked like a catch, but on replay, he may have been losing possession at the end of the play. It seemed like what should have been the game-winning touchdown but apparently, by the rulebook, it was not.

These plays happen every week, and the governing bodies of football seem incapable of finding the right balance. Solomon Vault had a similar play against Minnesota overturned earlier this season. That looked like a catch too.

It’s frustrating to watch, but it's to determine what the solution is. According to the letter of the law, the definition of a catch is so amorphous that it's nearly impossible to definitively judge it. Do we have to take a mass poll and gain a consensus from a broad sample size on every controversial catch? Even that would not come close to ending the controversy.

In the two other controversial plays of the game, the referees made the correct decision, based on the rules. The false fair catch signal was technically an invalid hand movement, and Troy Fumagalli's knee was down at the 1-yard line. In the end, Northwestern won the game, and we’re just going to have to proceed with that reality.

While Northwestern certainly benefitted from several lucky breaks, the Wildcats once again were able to find a way to win, as they have done all season. The insanity of the final minutes will overshadow fifty-eight fantastic minutes from Northwestern’s defense, which held Wisconsin to just seven points on the day.

Mike Hankwitz' run defense was suffocating. Wisconsin finished the game with -26 rushing yards and Wisconsin’s three running backs were limited to just 2.47 yards per carry. The pass rush also harried Wisconsin’s Joel Stave for the entire game, forcing two fumbles and six sacks. Northwestern also forced Stave and Wisconsin into five key turnovers that rescued NU's struggling offense.

"It was a challenge by our coaches," defensive end Deonte Gibson, who had two sacks on the day, said. "They told us we needed to attack the ball a lot more, and we successfully did that."

Northwestern’s defensive front had their best game of the season against Wisconsin’s depleted offensive line, but the secondary also played incredibly well.

Matt Harris locked down his side of the field and continues to play great coverage in the secondary. Godwin Igwebuike was all over the field and Terrence Brown filled in admirably for the injured Traveon Henry. Outside of their rough two-game stretch, this defense continues to prove it’s among the best units in the country. The only problem was that the Wildcats' offensive couldn’t take advantage of the defensive's impressive performance.

Despite the many positives that Northwestern can take from this game, the glaring offensive issues nearly cost the team dearly. First off, the passing offense was utterly ineffective. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s play-calling was very conservative, which wasn't helped by Clayton Thorson's 45 percent completion percentage and 60 passing yards. That's a big reason why Northwestern ran the ball on 66 percent of its offensive plays and Justin Jackson finished with a staggering 35 carries for 139 yards.

"Yeah, it was real frustrating, but we can’t put it on anyone but us…We gotta capitalize, we know that," Justin Jackson said about his offense's inability to capitalize on its multiple opportunities.

Wisconsin’s defense played as advertised, and would have shut down Northwestern completely had they not been gifted field position due to turnovers. The Badgers clamped down in the second half, limiting Northwestern to just three points. Thorson barely even looked downfield in his reads and was content to settle for short passes and draws that resulted in disappointing drives and punts. Northwestern’s leading receiver (Garrett Dickerson) only compiled 24 yards.

After a decent start, the running game bogged down in the second half, as Jackson and Long were unable to get anything going late in the game. Jack Mitchell also missed two field goals that nearly cost Northwestern the game. The defense also completely fell apart in the final two minutes, as Stave picked apart the secondary en route to the controversial end of the game. Stave also found holes in the secondary on Wisconsin’s other touchdown drive.

"The two minute drive…frankly, I’m really disappointed," Fitzgerald said about his defense, which was dominant for the vast majority of the game. "We have to look at some of the things we did on that drive, because until then I thought we had a pretty good defensive day."

In the end, Northwestern deserved to win this game by the slightest of margins, and that’s exactly what happened. While Wisconsin’s defense played very well and its offense was hamstrung by turnovers on the other side of the ball, it’s perfectly valid to argue that Northwestern got incredibly lucky at the end of the game. But if the Wildcats had lost, the narrative would have been about them playing well and choking, rather than them getting lucky.

Heading into this game, everyone wanted to learn if Northwestern was legitimate. Despite the controversy, the end result is that Northwestern won as a double-digit underdog on the road in a hostile, snowball-filled environment and definitely deserved to win the game. Getting a road win against a ranked opponent legitimizes this team even more so that its 8-2 record did. The Wildcats played well enough to prove they are a legitimately good football team, no matter what the referees ruled on a few bang-bang plays.