Football: Northwestern blown out by No. 7 Wisconsin 70-23 in regular season finale

Jonah L. Rosenblum

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Photo by Gabriel Peal / The Daily Northwestern

MADISON, Wis. — Needing a victory to secure its share of the Big Ten title, No. 7 Wisconsin left no question, dominating Northwestern the entire 60 minutes of play en route to a 70-23 rout.

Seven NU turnovers insured that there would not be an upset like last year, when the Wildcats defeated the No. 17 Badgers 33-31 at Ryan Field.

The win gives Wisconsin a share of the Big Ten title with Ohio State and Michigan State. With three teams tied for the championship, the bid will go to whichever team is ranked highest in the BCS standings released Sunday. Wisconsin is slotted in at No. 5, with Ohio State at No. 6 and Michigan State at No. 8.

“I didn’t know about the Rose Bowl until after, for sure, but probably when we hit 70, I thought, ‘OK, we’re safe,'” Wisconsin offensive lineman John Moffit said. “I have a little bit of paranoia; I think it comes from my coach.”

After the game, the Badgers celebrated with their fans. Fireworks lit up the Madison sky as the Wisconsin faithful rushed the field. Players had roses in their mouths.

“We’re Big Ten champs and there’s no greater feeling in the world than right now,” junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. “When you have a chance to win a Big Ten championship, that doesn’t come every year, that doesn’t necessarily come every decade. It’s a special moment and a moment I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

There would be no such celebration for NU, but there were a few positives that emerged from Saturday’s game.

NU was effective on special teams, taking advantage of Wisconsin’s 11 kickoffs to get good field position on several occasions. The highlight was freshman Venric Mark’s 94-yard kickoff return at the end of the first half that put NU within 42-17.

Mark set a team-record with 273 yards on nine returns, averaging 30.3 yards per return, but after the game, he said he was upset that Wisconsin kept kicking it to him, even after his touchdown return.

“When I took it back to the house, I thought they weren’t going to kick it to me,” Mark said. “Then, they kept kicking it to me. I found that highly disrespectful, but at the end of the day, they chose to kick it to me and my job is to return the ball.”

NU put up 161 yards on the ground, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Senior running back Stephen Simmons led the team with 55 rushing yards on 12 carries, and freshman running back Adonis Smith pitched in with 29 rushing yards on just four carries.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Evan Watkins showed some improvement in his second game as a starter, completing 13-of-22 passes for 123 yards and scoring the first two touchdowns of his career on a six-yard run and a 20-yard pass to junior superback Drake Dunsmore.

However, Watkins continued to have issues keeping the ball in his hands, tossing three interceptions and fumbling twice.

“Turnovers killed us,” Watkins said. “We had 22 million turnovers and like I said before, I put that on my shoulders.”

The turnovers put a great deal of pressure on NU’s defense. Wisconsin controlled time of possession, holding the ball for more than 37 minutes, and the Badgers frequently started in great field position as a result of Cats’ turnovers. Five of Wisconsin’s nine first-half drives began in NU territory.

“It sucks when you know you’re hurting your defense keeping them out on the field so long,” Watkins said. “When we see all those points on the board, you know half the time they’re getting the ball on their side of the field.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t want to blame the entire game on turnovers, however, especially on a day when the defense gave up 329 rushing yards and an astounding 7.7 yards per play.

“It’s not just those turnovers because we got a chance on defense then to get off the field, and we just didn’t do that,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to play better. Guys got to do their job.”

Fitzgerald was just 14 years old the last time NU gave up 70 points, in 1989, when the Cats gave up 76 points at Michigan State on their way to an 0-11-1 season.

“It’s really disappointing,” junior safety David Arnold said. “It’s kind of embarrassing, giving up that many points. You never want to see that.”

For its part, Wisconsin followed a tried-and-true formula on its way to a 49-17 halftime lead. The Badgers began by establishing the run, with three first-half touchdowns from running back Montee Ball.

The running game opened up holes in the secondary, which quarterback Scott Tolzien took advantage of, ending the half with four touchdown passes in nine minutes of play.

Wisconsin returned to the run in the second half, and NU was unable to stop the Badgers, as they ran for 188 yards and two more touchdowns.

Ball and fellow running back James White both topped the 100-yard mark, marking the seventh and eighth players respectively to record 100-plus rushing yards against the Cats this season.

Ball accumulated 178 yards on 20 carries with four rushing touchdowns, averaging 8.9 yards per carry. White added 133 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown.

Tolzien was nearly perfect for Wisconsin, completing 15-of-19 passes for 230 yards and four touchdowns before being pulled in the fourth quarter.