What a way to cap off the regular season as Northwestern (8-4, 5-3) pulled off the upset over previously No. 16 Wisconsin (8-3, 5-3) by a final score of 33-31 . NU posted an impressive offensive showing in the first half and came up with two huge takeaways in the last two minutes of the game.
The Wildcats started off the game with a bang by winning the toss, electing to receive, then marching down the field in 10 plays, capping it off with a Mike Kafka TD pass to fellow senior Andrew Brewer.
NU would add a field goal later in the quarter to take a 10-0 lead going into the second period.
After forcing a three-and-out, NU once again went on a big drive, this one finished with a trick play. Zeke Markshausen caught a lateral from Kafka and then tossed a 38-yard TD pass to fellow WR Sidney Stewart.
The Badgers would make a game of it in the second half, putting together a drive which ended with a 51-yard field goal and following that up with a 68-yard punt return for TD by David Gilreath. Suddenly, the Badgers were within striking distance at a score of 27-24.
Like earlier in the game, Northwestern would respond, this time by putting together another sustained drive capped off by a 45-yard Stefan Demos field goal to take a six point lead. And on NU's following drive, they would once again get a field goal, this time from 34 yards, to take a two score 33-24 lead.
The back-and-forth would continue going into the fourth quarter, with Wisconsin going back to its running game and driving quickly down the field to score a TD and make it a two point ball game going into crunch time.
The 'Cats next two drives stalled and NU was forced to punt, but kept the Badgers deep in their own territory. The most significant turn of events came with just under two minutes to play and Wisconsin driving at the NU 46, looking to convert a third and one as they tried to move into field goal position.
Big RB John Clay tried to leap over a player to gain the first down when NU LB Quentin Davie forced the ball out, and a host of Northwestern defenders jumped on it when it came to rest at the 41.
After a breif NU possession, Wisconsin got the ball back and QB Scott Tolzien tossed up a long pass intended for Issac Anderson, but NU CB Jordan Mabin was in perfect position and came up with the interception that sealed the game for Northwestern.
The game proved that the Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in the conference at the end of the regular season and provided fuel to NU's bowl positioning as the 'Cats now stand at 8-4, and are all but guaranteed a spot in a Florida bowl.
Player of the Game
NU P/K Stefan Demos (4-of-4 FGs, 3-of-3 XPs) . Although NU couldn't cap off all of its drives by finding paydirt, Demos took care of business by nailing all four of his field goals, including two 45 yarders. All 12 of those points from field goals were essential for NU to secure its 33-31 win.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions
QB Mike Kafka (26-of-40 for 326 yards and 2 TDs with no turnovers, 7 rushes for 17 yards) . Kafka could arguably be the MVP of the game and will likely be the MVP of the team and be in the running for league first or second team honors after posting yet another 300-plus yard performance. He also hasn't thrown an INT in the past four games following his three interception performance against Indiana.
WR Andrew Brewer (6 receptions for 102 yards, 2 TDs) . Brewer put on a show during his final game at Ryan Field that included an acrobatic catch in the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. He ended the season leading NU in receiving touchdowns (five) and yards per reception (16.0).
S Brad Phillips (12 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry, 1 pass break-up) . Phillips was all over the field and was a big reason that NU contained Wisconsin's running game. He also provided some big plays, like a sack early in the game and a pass-break up that was very close to be an interception that had touchdown-return written all over it. Yet another great performance from a senior on senior day in Evanston.
What to Work on
Offensive Balance: NU ran the ball just 38 percent of its offensive snaps and managed just 2.9 yards per carry. While the 'Cats succeeded by throwing the ball well and avoided any interceptions, they couldn't close out the game by moving the ball on the ground.
It will be interesting to see if the 'Cats even try to assemble a reliable running game or if they go the Texas Tech route and air it out the vast majority of the time.
Penalties: The 'Cats racked up an uncharacteristic nine penalties for 61 yards, with six coming just from the OL, and that doesn't include one holding call that was denied. The 'Cats usually can't afford to get behind the chains that often and expect Fitz to get the team to play more disciplined football in the bowl game.
Kickoff Coverage: It was clear that Northwestern didn't have confidence in its coverage team as it elected to kick short or squib kicks for most of the game. That is one thing that must be worked on because they can't continue to give teams opportunities in the form of good starting field position.
Decade Record: With the win, NU guarantees itself at least a .500 record for the decade and a shot to have a winning record for a decade for the first time since the 1930s, when the 'Cats went 43-33-8. The 'Cats also have four years with winning records this decade, something NU hasn't done since the 1940s.
Versus Wisconsin: Northwestern has gone bowling in every season since 1995 that they have beaten the Badgers ('95, '96, '00, '03, '05, and '09) and have only been to a bowl once during that time when they did not beat UW ('08, when they did not play Wisconsin).
Two-Season Record: NU's 17 wins ranks behind only the 1995-95 run (19 wins) and the 1903-04 run (18 wins) when looking at wins in consecutive years. The 'Cats have a chance to tie the 03-04 run with a win in the bowl game.
Total Offense: The Wildcats out-gained Wisconsin by 103 total yards and averaged 1.1 more yards per play than the Badgers on Saturday.
Turnovers: Both teams came into the game at 5-0 when winning the turnover battle. Wisconsin had a 1-0 edge with under two minutes to play, but an NU fumble takeaway and interception gave NU the edge and sealed the Wildcat victory.
The Wildcats all but guaranteed themselves a spot in the Champs Sports Bowl with a win that put the 'Cats at 8-4 to end the regular season.
Both Penn State and Iowa won, essentially keeping them both in contention for a BCS at-large spot in either the Orange or Fiesta Bowls. If one of those teams does make a BCS bowl, it puts the Outback Bowl in a position to choose between NU and Wisconsin (note that Wisconsin has an identical conference record, 5-3, as NU, but has one more game at Hawaii in which they will be favored; if the Badgers win there, they will go to 9-3 overall).
That puts the Champs in a position to select Northwestern without much of an argument (both Michigan State and Minnesota are 6-6 and cannot be selected in front of the 'Cats due to the two win differential).
If Penn State or Iowa fail to get a BCS at-large bid (unlikely) that would put the Champs into a decision between Northwestern and Wisconsin. In that scenario, it seems likely that NU could get the nod due to the head-to-head win and the fact that Wisconsin has been to an Orlando bowl in three of the last four years (including the Champs last year).
It seems all but confirmed that NU will head to the Champs, but the final decision won't be announced until Sunday, December 6.
What a way to finish the year for Northwestern, who was all but left for dead after they were 4-3 and down 25 to Indiana earlier in the year. But the 'Cats came back and went 4-1 down the stretch, including three straight November victories, to finish at a respectable 8-4 and end tied for Wisconsin for fourth place in the conference standings.
Many seniors played critical roles in the 'Cats' big win that finally gave the Ryan Field crowd reason to storm the field and celebrate. Now the Wildcats shift their focus to bowl game preparations as they seek to come up with their first bowl win since 1949, something clearly defined as a goal for the program heading into the year.
The win was a great way to celebrate NU's success this year, but fortunately there will be one more chance to do that, likely in Florida the last week of December.