Editor’s note: This story was published last September ahead of Northwestern’s matchup against Wisconsin. A blurb about last season’s game has been added at the end.
My first time ever watching Northwestern football in person didn’t go too well for the Wildcats.
First, a little background: I grew up in Minnesota, but the Gophers were never my preferred college team. My dad was a Stanford fan and the vast majority of my extended family were loyal to the team across the border from me, the Wisconsin Badgers. My grandpa, in particular, is a diehard Wisconsin fan and a long-time season ticket holder who took me to numerous games at Camp Randall over the years.
One of those games was November 28, 2010. I had just celebrated Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house in Madison, and we were headed to the stadium to watch No. 5 Wisconsin take on Northwestern with a share of the Big Ten title on the line.
As a 13-year-old who read the sports section of the newspaper every day, I knew plenty about Big Ten football. I knew that late-2000s Northwestern ranged from mediocre to solid, whereas the Badgers ranged from solid to strong as a program that had made eight straight bowl games. This 10-1 Wisconsin team, led by running backs Montee Ball and James White and defensive end J.J. Watt, had a chance to be Bret Bielema’s best in his fifth year as coach. Northwestern was 7-4, so I figured it might be a good game.
I probably didn’t realize the Wildcats were without starting quarterback Dan Persa and running back Mike Trumpy. Northwestern, playing a pair of freshman QBs in Evan Watkins and Kain Colter, turned it over seven times (Watt had a hand in at least three of those) and the Ball/White duo combined for 312 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Scott Tolzien threw for four more and the score was 70-23 after the THIRD QUARTER. I enjoyed every moment of it, even though I was disappointed that there was no scoring in the fourth.
Now that I’m a Northwestern student and fan, I can imagine that one wasn’t very fun for you guys who watched. At least it wasn’t a promising season or a major bowl game, like the Michigan and Tennessee losses in 2015, my first season of NU fandom.
Yet, despite that lopsided result, this has actually been a very competitive series over the past 30+ years. Wisconsin leads the overall series 58-35-5, but thanks to the awesome resource Winsipedia, we can break that down by era.
A quick rundown for any history buffs out there:
- Northwestern won the first matchup in 1890, then went winless in 17 straight (4 ties!)
- The Cats went 12-3 against Wisconsin from 1929 to 1946. During that time, NU’s head coaches were Dick Hanley and Pappy Waldorf. Old college football coach names rule.
- UW dominated the series in the 1950s and early 60s. Ara Parseghian, for all his success, was just 2-6 against the Badgers.
- NU had a 5-game win-streak from 1967 to 1971 under Alex Agase.
- Then...UW won 13 straight from ‘72 to ‘84. The Badgers weren’t even that good during those years, but the Dark Ages of Northwestern football were a tough time.
Since 1985, though, the series is tied 13-13 and neither school has won more than three games in a row.
It’s tough to find recaps from the 80’s or earlier, so if anyone has any good stories from those games, feel free to share them below. Again, you can check out all the scores here.
In just the last 20 years, there have been a remarkable amount of thrilling games between the two teams. As you can see in this graphic (the bigger the bar, the bigger the margin of victory), Wisconsin has generally won big while Northwestern has won a ton of close games.
Let’s take a quick look back at some frantic victories by the Cardiac Cats.
No. 14 Northwestern 34, Wisconsin 30, 1996 (Madison)
Coming off the magical 1995 Rose Bowl season, Northwestern had won 11 straight Big Ten games, but that streak was all but dead in the late moments against Ron Dayne and the Badgers in Camp Randall. Wisconsin had the ball and the lead with less than a minute to play. Then, somehow, Dayne fumbled. Steve Schnur found D’Wayne Bates for a go-ahead touchdown, and a Wisconsin Hail Mary was picked off. The streak was 12. Making things even better, this was a nationally-broadcast game on ESPN.
I highly recommend watching the final minute, even if you’ve seen it many times:
Wisconsin 26, Northwestern 25, 1997 (Evanston)
The following year, a little revenge was exacted at a sold-out Ryan Field for the ESPN audience. Trailing by 2 points late but on the move, the Badgers fumbled a snap and Northwestern recovered. The Wildcats drove all the way to the Wisconsin 4 yard-line looking to put the game away, but running back Faraji Leary fumbled. With just over a minute, left, Badger QB Mike Samuel led his team down the field, setting up a game-winning 48-yard field goal. Per the Chicago Tribune recap: “There were six lead changes, six lost fumbles and 708 yards of total offense.”
Northwestern 47, No. 7 Wisconsin 44 (2OT), 2000 (Madison)
Back in Madison three years later, arguably the craziest game of the series resulted in another improbable Northwestern victory. Wisconsin looked like it would move to 4-0 when it went up 34-31 on a field goal with less than a minute left. But Zak Kustok and the Wildcats quickly moved the ball down the field and tied it on a Tim Long field goal as time expired. The teams traded touchdowns in the first OT, but Northwestern held Wisconsin to a field goal on the first possession of double overtime and Damien Anderson scored the walkoff TD to cap a 174-yard day. Michael Bennett ran 48 times for 293 yards, but he was banged up and couldn’t play in OT.
Northwestern wouldn’t win at Camp Randall again until the controversial 2015 game.
Northwestern 51, No. 14 Wisconsin 48, 2005 (Evanston)
For the struggles Northwestern had in Madison during the majority of this century, Wisconsin went 17 years between 1999 and 2016 victories in Evanston. Granted, it was just a four-game home winning streak for NU (these teams used to not play every year), but Wisconsin was ranked in the Top 20 all four times. After a less-crazy 16-7 win in 2003, Northwestern got back to its wild ways in 2005 behind monster days from running back Tyrell Sutton and QB Brett Basanez. Sutton ran for 244, Basanez threw for 361, and the duo combined for six touchdowns. Northwestern posted a then-school record 674 yards and scored on seven (!) straight possessions, but still almost blew it. Wisconsin had the ball with one final chance, but a Reggie McPherson INT sealed the deal for the Cats.
Northwestern 33, No. 17 Wisconsin 31, 2009 (Evanston)
Four years later, Pat Fitzgerald got his first win of the series. Mike Kafka had a big day, throwing for 326 yards and two scores and Stefan Demos kicked four field goals, including two big ones in the second half. Northwestern took a comfortable 27-14 lead into halftime, but Scott Tolzien and Wisconsin charged back, eventually making the score 33-31 with nearly 11 minutes left. But the Northwestern defense refused to allow anything else. Over that final stretch, a Brian Peters fumble recovery and a Jordan Mabin interception were the big plays that helped the Wildcats wrap up the season with a win that led them to the Outback Bowl.
It’s safe to say Wisconsin got NU back in 2010, but there’s no need to talk about that game any further.
Northwestern 20, No. 17 Wisconsin 14, 2014 (Evanston)
This one isn’t as high-scoring as most of these contests, but it’s notable because of the performances by a couple of young players who are now stars in 2017. In the first meeting between these two teams as Big Ten West foes (Oh, god, remember when it was called the Legends division?), freshman RB Justin Jackson ran for 162 yards on 33 carries and freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike had three interceptions. Touchdown Trevor Siemian threw for just a single score on the day but did enough to help his team win.
Bonus edition: Northwestern 13, Wisconsin 7, 2015 (Madison)
Jazz Peavy didn’t complete the process of a catch. Obviously.
Northwestern 24, Wisconsin 33, 2017 (Madison)
In a game Northwestern led at half, Wisconsin began to connect on bigger plays in the second half. Despite getting blitzed in the third quarter, the Wildcats put together two touchdowns drives in the final five minutes of regulation, and even got the ball back with a chance to tie the game with just over a minute to play. Backed up near his own goal line, Clayton Thorson took a safety with 58 seconds left, and that was that. Northwestern’s Big Ten West chances were dealt a crippling blow before October.