Despite forcing five Wisconsin turnovers and holding the Badgers to a negative rushing total, it looked like Northwestern was going to lose. It looked that way a couple times, actually.
But thanks to some controversial calls in the game's final seconds, the Cats held on for a narrow 13-7 victory Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Jack Mitchell missed two field goals, and the Northwestern offense couldn't do much with an insane amount of turnovers, getting just 10 points off the five Wisconsin giveaways. But instead of the storyline being about those missed opportunities, the Cats improved to 9-2 and still have a shot at winning more games in a single season than any team in program history.
Northwestern led, 13-7, with Wisconsin driving without a timeout in the game's final minutes. A long pass from Joel Stave to Troy Fumagalli was initially ruled a game-tying touchdown, but a review showed Fumagalli was down at the one-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Stave hit Jazz Peavy in the end zone for an apparent game-tying touchdown. Instead, another review indicated that Peavy failed to complete the catch, and again six Badgers points came off the board.
After a sack, a confusing spike play and an incomplete pass by backup quarterback Bart Houston, Wisconsin failed to score on its final drive, and the ridiculous ending finished with a Northwestern win.
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The fans at Camp Randall were audibly upset with those calls, but it wasn't the first time. Earlier in the second half, Wisconsin's Alex Erickson appeared to return a punt for a go-ahead touchdown. But officials ruled Erickson called for a fair catch, even though his arm signal appeared to be to alert teammates to stay away from the ball. Regardless, the points came off the board.
Prior to all that second-half craziness, Northwestern cashed in on a Stave interception in the first quarter, turning it into a Justin Jackson touchdown rush that made it a 7-0 game.
The Badgers gave it right back on the next drive, on a Tanner McEvoy fumble, but Mitchell missed a field-goal try. Mitchell hit a field goal before the end of the half to send the Cats to the break with a 10-0 advantage.
Wisconsin scored on its first possession of the second half, needing to go just 64 yards and finishing the drive with a Corey Clement touchdown run.
Mitchell missed another field goal in the third quarter before hitting one off an Anthony Walker interception to make it a 13-7 game.
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Defense dominated this one, with the teams just barely getting over 200 total yards apiece. Northwestern's pass rush was terrific at flustering Stave, sacking him six times, while the Cats' front completely shut down the Badgers' rushing attack, as Wisconsin finished with minus-26 rushing yards, a shocking stat for a program so often associated with rushing excellence.
Of course, the Cats managed just 60 passing yards, with Clayton Thorson completing only nine throws. Jackson, though, had a big day, rushing 35 times for 139 yards and a touchdown.
The win sent Northwestern to 9-2, and one of the more successful seasons in program history is still very much possible. A win in the regular-season finale next weekend against Illinois would give the Cats 10 wins in a single season for just the second time under Pat Fitzgerald and just the fourth time in program history. If Northwestern could pick up two more wins — over Illinois and in a bowl game — it would be the first 11-win season in program history.
Wisconsin dropped to 8-3 with the loss, and its season remains kind of a mystery. The Badgers have just three losses, all to teams currently ranked in the top 20 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but have no impressive wins. They wrap their regular season next weekend with the annual rivalry game against Minnesota.