Football: Northwestern rolls past No. 20 Wisconsin in 31-17 upset, continuing upward trend in Big Ten West


Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer

Sophomore receiver Kyric McGowan stretches for a touchdown reception during the third quarter of Saturday’s game. McGowan’s big play helped Northwestern pull away for a 31-17 win over Wisconsin.

Cole Paxton, Gameday Editor


Entering Saturday, Northwestern had played everyone close. The Wildcats lost to Michigan by only a field goal. They needed overtime to defeat then-winless Nebraska. Even lowly Rutgers lost to NU by a single possession.

Then, perennial Big Ten West juggernaut Wisconsin rolled into Ryan Field. And the Cats cruised, dominating every aspect of the game en route to a barely competitive 31-17 victory over the No. 20 Badgers (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten), giving NU (5-3, 5-1) its fourth straight win and a critical victory in its quest for a Big Ten West title.

“A lot of times we get called the ‘Cardiac Cats,’” senior quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “I don’t know how much we like that name, but we haven’t given anyone any reason to not call us that. It’s nice to get a win like that. A big win for us.”

Offensively, the Cats relied on newfound strengths in the run game. True freshman Isaiah Bowser racked up 117 yards on 34 carries, a week after the first 100-yard game of his career. NU tallied 182 total yards on the ground, aided also by a handful of lengthy scrambles — and two rushing touchdowns — from Thorson.

The quarterback was mostly muted through the air, throwing for just 167 yards, with a touchdown and three interceptions. But the Cats’ defense allowed just one touchdown off the turnovers, and recovered three fumbles of its own.

Takeaways were among several strengths for the defense on Saturday. Wisconsin racked up just 323 total yards, many of which came on garbage-time drives late in the fourth quarter. Reserve quarterback Jack Coan, playing in place of injured starter Alex Hornibrook, threw for just 158 yards and failed to make much of an impact.

Star running back Jonathan Taylor, who had rushed for 100-plus yards in every game entering Saturday, mustered just 46 on a paltry 11 carries.

“Great job by our D-line today,” Fitzgerald said. “Most of their (successful) runs were on draws and passing situations. … To hold (Taylor) to 46 yards, that’s a big accomplishment for our defense.”

The Badgers efficiently converted a Thorson interception into an easy opening touchdown. But NU trailed for barely five minutes before answering with a touchdown drive of its own, and never again fell behind.

The Cats led just 14-10 at halftime but pulled away in the third quarter, holding Wisconsin to just two first downs and 47 yards in the period. Thorson punctuated a third-quarter drive with a long touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kyric McGowan, who acrobatically snagged the ball deep in the end zone.

The score made the game a two-possession contest, and the Badgers, two-time defending division champions, did not draw closer.

“We had a great week of preparation. Our offense especially came back from a really poor performance at Rutgers (last week), came with the right mindset,” Fitzgerald said. “It showed in their performance today.”

Now it is NU that sits in pole position for the Big Ten West. The Cats rolled off an undefeated October — bookended by wins over ranked teams — after a winless September with three home losses.

Rather than fold after the demoralizing start, NU simply went back to work, putting in extra effort to correct the ills that had plagued the team at the outset of the season.

“We’re persistent,” said senior cornerback Montre Hartage, who had four pass breakups on Saturday. “Guys are always hungry to prove to the critics that we’re able to compete with any team that steps on the field with us.”

That will be tested in the next two weeks: No. 3 Notre Dame comes to Evanston next Saturday, and the Cats then head to No. 18 Iowa for a divisional battle royale. Instead of simply playing spoiler, however, NU has an opportunity to continue trending upward and reach rarified air for the program.

“Our team is starting to improve,” Fitzgerald said. “We had some growing pains here early that were painfully obvious to watch. But these guys have had faith. They’ve stayed the course, they’ve had belief, and they’re getting a reward for that effort. They can’t stop now.”

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Twitter: @ckpaxton