On the brink of bowl-eligibility extinction, Northwestern prepares to visit red-hot No. 18 Wisconsin


Alyce Brown/The Daily Northwestern

Bryce Gallagher celebrates after a play. The sophomore linebacker and Northwestern take on No. 18 Wisconsin Saturday.

Patrick Andres, Senior Staffer


Time is running out for Northwestern.

The days are shorter and colder. The Wildcats’ neighbors at Welsh-Ryan Arena are beginning to draw coverage and eyeballs as basketball season ramps up. And NU is 3-6, in need of three straight wins to attain bowl eligibility in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2015-18.

“The word is urgency,” graduate student linebacker Chris Bergin said. “That’s of the utmost importance right now, and that is understood by everybody in this program. From athletic training to strength staff, to coaches to players, to young guys and old guys, we’re ready for the opportunity.”

A formidable road opponent awaits the Cats (3-6, 1-5 Big Ten) Saturday morning in No. 18 Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2). The Badgers started the season 1-3, falling to Penn State in their opener before being dominated by Notre Dame and Michigan in back-to-back weeks.

Wisconsin righted its ship with a 24-0 shutout of Illinois and is currently riding a five-game winning streak, during which it has yet to allow more than 14 points in a game.

“This defense is No. 1 in the country for a reason,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They’re tough, they’re violent, they’re well-coordinated. They do things right, they don’t make mistakes … (Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard) is an outstanding football coach.”

Fitzgerald said both NU and Wisconsin rank among college football’s most consistently known quantities, and the two teams’ meetings in recent years have reflected this phenomenon. The final scores in the last decade include 20-14 (2014), 13-7 (2015), 21-7 (2016) and 17-7 (2020). A team has cracked the 30-point mark in just two of the past seven contests.

“Like last week (against Iowa), we’ve got a lot of history between our staffs going against each other,” Fitzgerald said. “You get into Big Ten West games in November, and it’s fundamentals, it’s taking care of the football … I don’t think anyone’s gonna trick anyone at this point in the year.”

The Cats didn’t take care of the football against the Hawkeyes, turning the ball over more than twice for the first time since their 30-23 loss to Duke on Sept. 18.

Each of NU’s three turnovers was an interception from senior quarterback Andrew Marty, including a pick on the Cats’ final drive that sealed Iowa’s 17-12 win.

“We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes we made the previous week,” graduate wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. said. “This last game, as coach said, we made a lot of internal errors. That’s on us and not anything [the Hawkeyes] did.”

The Badgers’ in-season improvements this year have stemmed in part from an increased emphasis on the running game, which NU has struggled to defend against in 2021. Against Purdue, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz tried just eight passes, completing five for 52 yards while the Badgers outrushed the Boilermakers 297 to -13.

Running back Chez Mellusi, who ran for 149 yards and a touchdown against Purdue, was ruled out for the rest of the season Thursday due to a leg injury. Wisconsin will instead turn to running back Braelon Allen, who also burned the Boilermakers for 140 yards and two touchdowns. The Badgers’ newly functional offense will pose a significant challenge to the Cats’ defense, which has given up more than 300 yards in each of its last three games.

“These young guys are extremely talented, extremely gifted and extremely smart, high-IQ football players,” Bergin said. “It’s on me to continue to relay to them how good they are and to continue to get them to grow in confidence and trust themselves.”

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