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Snowballs and Controversial Calls: The story of Northwestern’s 2015 win at Wisconsin

This one had it all.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Just under four years ago, Northwestern took on Wisconsin in Madison in what was not only a critical divisional game, but quite memorable for snowballs, controversial officiating calls and a game ending goal line stand by NU’s defense. We tracked down former players who helped us tell the story of the Wildcats’ most recent win at Camp Randall:

Time and time again throughout Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, the Northwestern football program has been underestimated heading into big games.

November 2015 was no exception.

At the time, NU was 8-2 and ranked No. 20 in the country while Wisconsin was ranked 21st. Nonetheless, Northwestern was a 12-point underdog heading into its annual matchup with the Badgers.

“You just laugh at something like that,” former Northwestern offensive lineman Blake Hance told Inside NU about being an underdog. “It is extra motivation...We’ve proved over the years that we win a lot of these games like that so everyone [on Northwestern] goes into the game confident.”

Former Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris was struck by the unique atmosphere of Camp Randall Stadium on that frigid November day. “That place has some incredible fans, the house was packed, a lot of red,” Harris told Inside NU. “We had to silence the noise and perform.”

While that game can certainly be remembered as a closely fought Top 25 showdown with lasting Big Ten implications, one factor ended up defining this contest more than any other:


It snowed 8-9 inches in Madison that day, and although the field was cleared of it, the stands of Camp Randall were not. This wasn’t news for the Northwestern bench.

“It got to a point where it was getting a little dangerous just because we’d be sitting on the bench and snowballs would come flying near the back of our heads,” Hance recalled. “I think on the bench we even started keeping our helmets on while we were on the bench just so we wouldn’t get clocked with a snowball.”

“There was some unbelievable snow ball throws from their students and fans,” Pat Fitzgerald joked. “It was awesome. There was one play where Nate Hall gets hit right in the rear end from the coaches copy. It’s like six shots miss him, and then one shot pelts him.”

Things got really weird in Madison. Even the Wisconsin cheerleaders ended up becoming the targets of snowballs from fans that seemed to be on their side:

The snowball assaults became so vicious that the Madison Police Department felt the need to step in:

Although what fell from the sky might have been the most intriguing storyline in this game, the play on the turf generated its fair share of entertainment as well, especially for Northwestern fans.

The Wildcats were leading the game 10-7 midway through the third quarter when the first on-field controversy happened.

Northwestern punted from its own 29-yard line and the ball bounced at Wisconsin’s 36-yard line. That’s when the Badgers’ returner waived his hands below his waist to signal for his teammates to move out of the way. Alex Erickson backtracked to the Wisconsin 23-yard line where he retrieved the football and returned the punt for an apparent touchdown to give Wisconsin a 13-10 lead.

However, the officials ruled that Erickson issued an “invalid fair catch signal” and the TD was called back. In college football, a punt returner is not allowed to wave their arms in any scenario other than to call a fair catch. The referees made the correct decision and Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst admitted so after the game, but that didn’t keep Badger fans from being quite displeased.

The Wildcats caught a huge break, as it didn’t appear that their punt coverage unit was at all confused or deterred by the invalid fair catch signal as they tried to bring down Erickson. It proved to be far from the only favorable bounce that would go Northwestern’s way in this one.

NU led 13-7 with 1:47 remaining in the game, but Wisconsin had the ball at its own 26 yard line and began to put together a drive as they tried to win the game in its dying moments. With 30 seconds left, Badger quarterback Joel Stave threw what appeared to be a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli. On the replay, though, Fumagalli’s knee proved to be down at Northwestern’s one-yard line.

On first and goal, the Badgers appeared to score once again on a pass. But upon further review, the referees overturned the touchdown, saying that Jazz Peavy did not have control of the ball as he went out of bounds. Of the many controversies, this was definitively the most questionable call of the game.

On the next play, Deonte Gibson sacked Joel Stave for a ten yard loss, all but sealing the Northwestern victory. And despite all the controversy, it was nothing short of a monumental win for Pat Fitzgerald’s program. The 2015 victory marked the first and only time Fitz’s squad has beaten the Badgers at Camp Randall as a coach.

“It was a second of relief since there were so many close calls at the end there,” Hance said. “Hearing 75,00 or 80,000 fans silent like that is one of the best feelings…running off the field and feeling those snowballs just coming in hot…It was a fun place to win.”

“I remember looking into the stands and just seeing, in the midst of the sea of red, there was a lot of purple in there as well,” Harris said.

“One of the best things about sports is that no matter the ranking, each team is capable of being beaten.”