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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern topples No. 20 Wisconsin 31-17 to take control of Big Ten West

The road to Indianapolis runs through Evanston.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

EVANSTON, Ill. — The Wildcats finally got it done.

Three Wisconsin turnovers led to 17 Northwestern points, and the Wildcats dominated the game’s final three quarters en route to a 31-17 win Saturday at Ryan Field.

Clayton Thorson accounted for three touchdowns — two on the ground and one through the air — and Northwestern’s defense stymied a powerful Wisconsin rushing attack to stun the Badgers (5-3, 3-2).

With the win, Northwestern (5-3, 5-1 B1G) controls its own destiny in the Big Ten West, and the Nov. 10 matchup with a one-loss Iowa team looms even larger.

Things got off to an inauspicious start, as a Clayton Thorson interception gave Wisconsin a short field. The Badgers scored five plays later to take a 7-0 lead. The Wildcats would respond with a clinical 15-play, 75-yard drive culminating in a Clayton Thorson 1-yard sneak to tie the game at seven.

It was a punt-fest until Northwestern put together a solid drive behind a long Thorson-Skowronek completion and a 21-yard Kyric McGowan reverse. The Wildcats didn’t have much creativity near the goal line though, and Thorson was stuffed on consecutive QB sneaks as Wisconsin forced the turnover on downs.

On the ensuing Badger drive, Jonathan Taylor fumbled a handoff and Trae Williams recovered at the Wisconsin 15. After a Wisconsin penalty on 4th down, NU got a fresh set of downs but a holding penalty erased an Isaiah Bowser touchdown. On 3rd and goal, Thorson evaded a couple Badger defenders for an incredible 5-yard touchdown scramble to give NU the advantage.

A Wisconsin field goal trimmed the NU lead to four at the half.

On NU’s second drive of the third quarter, a roughing the punter penalty gave the Wildcats a fresh set of downs. Northwestern pushed its advantage to 21-10 on a gorgeous 24-yard touchdown throw to McGowan, who bobbled the ball before coming down with the catch in the back of the endzone.

Paddy Fisher forced another Wisconsin turnover on the ensuing possession, punching the football out of Jonathan Taylor’s arms, and Charlie Kuhbander nailed a 26-yard field goal to give NU a 24-10 lead with 2:39 to go in the third quarter.

The nail in Wisconsin’s coffin came when Jordan Thompson made an incredible play to strip Jack Coan. Nate Hall pounced on the football inside the Badger red zone and Bowser danced in for a NU touchdown four plays later.

Thorson threw his third interception of the game in NU territory and Wisconsin cut the Wildcat advantage to 14 with 8:00 to go. The score would hold there, and


Taking advantage of Wisconsin mistakes

Northwestern doesn’t win this game without Wisconsin shooting itself in the foot on several occasions. NU’s second touchdown came after a Jonathan Taylor fumble gave the Wildcats a short field, and that touchdown drive was extended by a bad Wisconsin pass interference penalty on fourth down. Northwestern’s third touchdown came after a roughing the punter penalty brought the ball to nearly midfield. NU’s fourth score of the day, a Charlie Kuhbander field goal, was preceded by Taylor’s second lost fumble of the day. The Wildcats put the game away when Jordan Thompson forced a Jack Coan fumble and Nate Hall recovered at the Wisconsin 13. Four plays later, Isaiah Bowser scored and the game was effectively over.

Northwestern’s defense created havoc, which turned into NU points

Wisconsin played very conservatively with quarterback Jack Coan making his first career start, but Northwestern’s defense put together an incredible performance against the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense. The Cats held Jonathan Taylor, who entered the game with 1,109 yards, to just 46 yards. The Wildcats recovered three Badger fumbles to generate short fields for the NU offense, and Wisconsin couldn’t control the time of possession or generate any big plays. Montre Hartage was an island at corner, breaking up four passes, including two huge plays as Wisconsin was driving in the fourth quarter.

The Wildcats got creative on times

Mick McCall had some fun in the first half. Kyric McGowan picked up 21 yards on a reverse, and we saw Riley Lees take a snap in a Wildcat formation as well. It seemed like NU abandoned its conventional zone blocking scheme in favor of downhill run blocking, which allowed Isaiah Bowser to pick up 45 yards on 11 carries in the first half. After rushing for just 64 combined yards in its previous two meetings with Wisconsin, NU amassed 184 yards on the ground Saturday. However, McCall dialed up five (5) quarterback sneaks inside the Wisconsin 5-yard line. One resulted in a Thorson touchdown, but the lack of creativity and execution led to a turnover at the 1-yard line on another drive.