In the upcoming days, we'll be counting down our Top 5 moments in Northwestern sports from the 2015 calendar year. We began with an Olympic athlete, Jordan Wilimovsky. Today, we travel back in time to November, and north to Madison, Wis.
It has been six weeks since Northwestern triumphed against Wisconsin, but Jazz Peavy probably still thinks he made a game-winning touchdown catch with time expiring in the fourth quarter. Fortunately for Northwestern, though, the rules officially stated that he did not, and the Wildcats escaped Madison with a 13-7 victory that gave NU a 9-2 record on the season. It was a wild contest filled with snowballs, interceptions and good defense, but the narrow victory was definitely one of the best moments of the season.
No. 20 Northwestern entered the game as 13-point underdogs against No. 25 Wisconsin, but the Wildcats were determined to prove that their close wins against Penn State and Nebraska were not flukes. The defense was lights out as Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry overwhelmed Wisconsin's offensive line. Wisconsin turned the ball over five times, including two Joel Stave interceptions, but NU's anemic offense was unable to fully capitalize on the Badgers' mistakes.
Things were weird right from the get-go in Madison as Wisconsin fans pelted cheerleaders, mascots and players with snowballs in the frigid weather before the game and even during the first quarter. As police warned fans to stop, Justin Jackson scored Northwestern's only touchdown of the game in the opening frame after NU picked off Stave deep in Wisconsin territory. However, the Badgers were able to stay in the game despite having no running game whatsoever, and Stave was able to withstand a 10-0 halftime deficit to get his team within three points early in the third quarter.
Then, after a Northwestern punt, Wisconsin return man Alex Erickson broke three tackles en route to what appeared like a go-ahead touchdown. However, it was negated when the referees determined Erickson had invalidly signaled for a fair catch by waving his hands to get his teammates away from the ball. It was an enormous break for the Wildcats, who were getting nothing going on offense and to whom a four-point deficit seemed insurmountable.
Jack Mitchell missed a field goal, but was given another chance after Anthony Walker intercepted Stave for the second time in the fourth quarter. He drilled a 37-yarder with four minutes to play to give Northwestern a 13-7 lead, but the defense inexplicably collapsed on the next drive as Stave led Wisconsin down the field with ease in his final home game.
Troy Fumagalli looked like he had caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Stave with under two minutes left, but the referees correctly determined that he was down at the one-yard line and overturned the call. Then, receiver Jazz Peavy ran a quick out route in the right side of the end zone and Stave threw a perfect pass to him for the touchdown to give Wisconsin the lead.
But alas, it was not to be. Peavy bobbled the ball as he hit the ground, even though it looked like he had gained control of the ball for a good portion of time in the end zone. The referees ruled it incomplete, and the 75,000+ fans in the crowd went berserk. Then, Stave got sacked and was forced to come out of the game on the penultimate play in favor of backup Bart Houston.
In an even more confusing sequence, Wisconsin managed to quickly snap the ball on third down in order to get another play off before the game ended. Northwestern thought it had already won, but the defense came back on the field and broke up a pass from Wisconsin's backup quarterback to finally win the game. Of course, the remaining fans immediately started chucking snowballs at the referees and the players. The refs fled into the tunnel, but the players stayed on the field and celebrated the win with visiting fans.
"I'm still kind of speechless, I'm not sure what I just saw. I don't know how that just unfolded, but it did," said Pat Fitzgerald after the game.
This game was great for several reasons. It was arguably Northwestern's best defensive performance of the entire year, and Wisconsin was held in check for most of the game as Gibson, Walker, Matthew Harris and others shut down Wisconsin's rushing and passing attack. Winning a road game against a Wisconsin team that had broken Northwestern's hearts repeatedly over the years was also a huge emotional win for the team. The victory also cemented NU's place as one of the top-15 teams in the nation. The insane finish and controversial calls ensured that this game will be remembered for years to come.