In a truly bizarre game befitting of these two programs, Northwestern upset the division-favorite Wisconsin Badgers 17-7 despite being outgained by 97 yards on the day. While not the most aesthetically pleasing contest, it remained a fun watch for all those who support the purple and white.
Here’s three stock ups and three stock downs from the Wildcats’ big day.
The redshirt first-year from College Station has made his presence known all season long, leading the team with three interceptions coming into the game, and continued to make big plays against the Badgers. Joseph hauled in two interceptions in the first half, making him the first Wildcat with multiple interceptions in multiple games since 1996. Both plays were largely dependent upon Joseph being in the right place at the right time, but by executing when given the opportunity, he stopped two drives that had already reached Northwestern’s side of the field, likely preventing Wisconsin from scoring.
Following Travis Whillock’s decision to opt-out of the season, many worried about how the ‘Cats would hold up in the secondary. Not only has Joseph assuaged those corners, but the redshirt freshman has built himself a case for first-team All-Big Ten consideration.
Brandon Joseph is on pace for 10 INTs, which would trail 10 players on the all-time single season list, including: current Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard (who had 11 INTs in 2002)— Jack Lido (@JackLido) November 21, 2020
In a game where the running backs were a non-factor and the offensive line didn't give him much time, Peyton Ramsey played relatively mistake-free football and made a variety of difficult throws while evading pressure. The senior quarterback finished 23-of-44 with 203 yards and two touchdowns on the day with zero interceptions, making this his first turnover-free affair since the opener vs. Maryland.
On the other end of Peyton’s passes, the receivers did a good job creating space between themselves and the Wisconsin secondary, who were well-positioned on account of Northwestern’s non-existent running attack. All in all, nine players caught passes, while Riley Lees even completed a pass of his own to Ramaud Chiaokiao-Bowman, who played another great game himself with 95 receiving yards and a beautiful touchdown grab.
In their biggest game of the year, the Wildcats’ shift in offensive scheme was more noticeable than ever. Credit to Mike Bajakian, who wasn’t tasked with transforming Northwestern’s offense into an elite juggernaut, but rather a unit that could steadily provide some support to a forceful defense. A year after NU finished last in the nation in passing yards per game among non-triple-option teams, they’ve built an air attack capable of dissecting the toughest of defenses.
After defeating the Badgers — their toughest regular season opponent to date — Northwestern has a stranglehold on the West Division. Perhaps even more exciting, the Wildcats will be heavy favorites in each of their remaining regular season games and, should they win those contests, they’ll likely be playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff at the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. It’s hard to believe how far the ‘Cats have come from their dismal 2019 campaign, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Honorable Mentions: JR Pace the towel thief, Blake Gallagher, white face masks, Greg Newsome II, takeaways, staying undefeated
For a second consecutive game, the Wildcats struggled to produce on the ground. Northwestern generated just 24 yards on 23 carries, a putrid number for a team that relied heavily on their rushing attack in its first few games of the season. Following a first-quarter fumble on the one-yard line, Isaiah Bowser was effectively benched, finishing with only two carries for two yards. Drake Anderson played the “best” game of any ball-carrier, posting 13 yards on a team-leading 1.6 yards per carry, while freshman Cam Porter added a meager three yards on four carries.
On both ends of the ball, Wisconsin’s linemen got the best of Northwestern. Mertz had seemingly endless time in the pocket, while the Badgers’ running backs — particularly Jalen Berger — were able to break through the line of scrimmage with ease on many carries. Offensively, Ramsey was frequently forced to throw with a man in his face, and the running backs were met up front with the full force of the Badgers’ defensive line. Wisconsin’s biggest strength as a program might be the consistent size and force of its linemen, so their success shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. But, while Northwestern’s line play improved throughout the game, it still was far from a flawless performance.
Capitalizing on turnovers
Five forced takeaways is great, but scoring seven points off five takeaways is considerably less than great. On four separate occasions in the first half, the Wildcats started an offensive drive in Wisconsin territory, yet only one of those drives ended in points for NU. Between a goal-line fumble from Bowser, a missed field goal attempt from Charlie Kuhbander and a series of three-and-outs, the offense nearly wasted an elite defensive performance.
However, on the defense’s fourth takeaway and Joseph’s second interception, Ramsey found RCB for the score to end the first half — NU’s only points off turnovers all day. While the Wildcats have reached their goal of wanting more takeaways in 2020, the next step is the offense turning those turnovers into points.
Honorable Mentions: The third quarter, screen plays, staying calm, ESPN College GameDay, doubters