EVANSTON-This was gritty, old-school Big Ten football at its best, and Northwestern proved on Saturday that it is the grittiest and most old-school team in the Big Ten West. Maybe even the entire conference.
The No. 19 Wildcats used a stifling, opportunistic defense that created five turnovers, and just enough offense to outbludgeon No. 10 Wisconsin, 17-7, in just the kind of muck-fest that head coach Pat Fitzgerald loves.
Northwestern generated just 263 yards of total offense, but two touchdown passes by Peyton Ramsey and a Charlie Kuhbander field goal was all they needed to vanquish the previously unbeaten Badgers, whose 47-points-per-game offense was held to a single TD by a swarming Wildcat defense.
Ramsey, the Indiana graduate transfer, outplayed Wisconsin freshman QB Graham Mertz, firing two touchdown passes in the first half and, more importantly, not turning the ball over once. Mertz, who came into the game without any interceptions, threw three.
Those three picks and two lost Wisconsin fumbles enabled the Wildcats to put a hammer lock on the Big Ten West. With three games to go, NU is 5-0 and has a de-facto two-game lead over Wisconsin, the only team in the division with one loss.
It’s too early to book hotel rooms in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game, but the Wildcats may want to make a few calls to check on availability.
This game was all but decided near the end of the third quarter, when Wisconsin, trailing 14-7 and facing a fourth-and-6 at the NU 23-yard line, eschewed a field-goal try and decided to gamble and go for a first down. Big mistake. Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz sent the house and the Wildcats sacked Mertz for a 10-yard loss. Cameron Ruiz was officially credited with the takedown, but the Cats were swarming him from all angles.
Northwestern then mounted a nine-play, 52-yard drive, all of them Ramsey passes, and capped it with Kuhbander’s 32-yard field goal with 11:35 left in the game. That gave the Cats a 17-7 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. While a 10-point lead may not sound like that much, in this taffy pull of a contest, a two-score advantage was insurmountable.
It was too much for the Big Ten’s No. 1 offense to overcome. The Badgers next four drives ended like this: interception, punt, turnover on downs and end of the game.
Ramsey finished 23 of 44 passing for 203 yards. The Wildcats put the game on his shoulders because its running game was a disaster, producing just 24 yards on 23 carries and a fumble at the goal line in the first quarter. Mertz went 23 for 41 for 230 yards, with one TD and those three interceptions.
Wisconsin outgained Northwestern by 103 yards but could convert just 3 of 16 third downs and saw two drives end with failed fourth-down conversions. Northwestern came up with three sacks and seven quarterback hurries to go along with the five takeaways.
As is their custom, Northwestern came out firing on its first possession of the game, marching right down the field for a score. Running a lot of two tight-end sets, Ramsey went 4-for-4 passing for 37 yards, the last one a two-yard pass to Charlie Mangieri in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. Ramsey got the benefit of two pass-interference calls against the Badgers, as well as a reviewed sideline pass to Riley Lees that looked out of bounds but was called a catch. On the ground, the Cats lost three yards on two carries.
The rest of the half was dictated by turnovers, as there were a total of five of them: four by Wisconsin and one by Northwestern. Yet in terms of points, the teams were even. The Badgers converted their lone fumble recovery into a touchdown, while Northwestern wasted three opportunities before finally cashing in on an interception late in the first half.
Already leading 7-0, the Wildcats missed a golden opportunity to take a two-score lead on the ensuing drive. Paddy Fisher popped Garret Groshek to force a fumble and Blake Gallagher recovered it to set the Wildcats up at the Wisconsin 37. Northwestern shocked the Badgers with some trickeration on the first play, as a reverse pass from Riley Lees to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman went for 36 yards to the Wisconsin 1-yard line. But on the next snap, Isaiah Bowser was hit by Keeanu Benton and fumbled into the end zone, where Spencer Lytle recovered it for a touchback.
That was a turning point and resulted in a 14-point swing, because while Northwestern failed to capitalize on its turnover, Wisconsin did. The Badgers got to midfield, where Graham Mertz fired a 49-yard touchdown to Chimere Dike on a play-action pass. Northwestern’s safeties bit on the play fake, and Dike outran Ruiz across the field for the score.
Merz then coughed up the ball on the next possession, when he was hit by a blitzing Gallagher, who punched the ball out at the Wisconsin 33. Trevor Kent, playing in his first game of the season, recovered it.
Northwestern, though, moved the ball just five yards on the next three plays and Charlie Kuhbander badly missed a 45-yard field goal try to waste another great chance at a score.
But the Wildcat defense just kept producing takeaways. Mertz, who came into the game with seven touchdowns and not a single pick, threw interceptions on the next two drives as Northwestern proved why it came into the contest with the most picks in the Big Ten.
The first one came after Wisconsin used its ground game to drive into NU territory. Mertz’s pass over the middle to Jake Ferguson was tipped by Fisher and Brandon Joseph picked it off at the NU 25. Northwestern, though, could manage just one first down before punting the ball back to the Badgers.
No problem. Joseph did the same thing on the next Wisconsin drive, picking off an overthrown Mertz aerial in NU territory with 2:15 left before the half. This time, the Wildcats’ offense finally came through.
Abandoning the run entirely and running tempo, Ramsey went 7-for-7 for all 72 yards through the air, including a 25-yard touchdown pass on a perfect fade in the end zone to Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who kept his foot inbounds while falling out of bounds. It was the fourth scoring hookup between NU’s QB and favorite receiver in the last two weeks and gave the Wildcats a 14-7 edge heading into the half.
In the third quarter, both offenses looked to be running in cement. Northwestern failed to produce a single first down and just 13 yards in its first five possessions. But Wisconsin couldn’t do much better, moving the sticks just twice in four possessions.
The Badgers best second-half scoring chance ended with the sack of Mertz on fourth down. Greg Newsome II came up with an interception on the Badgers next drive, and while Wisconsin got into NU territory two more times, the end zone always seemed like it was a long way away.
Northwestern, which is 5-0 for the second time since 1962, will no doubt earn a lofty College Football Playoff ranking this week. The Wildcats aren’t pretty, but they are undefeated.