Well, that turned out to be quite the exciting game. I was rather shocked by the final score, though not by who won. Those of you who've been around since the beginning of the season know that this was a tough one for me, as I write about both Wisconsin and Northwestern for The Rivalry, Esq. I grew up a Badger fan and as a current Northwestern Law student also cheer quite hard for the Wildcats. While the Northwestern-Wisconsin rivalry isn't a blood feud like some others in this conference, it was still a difficult game for me. Every play was essentially both good and bad. I cheered and then felt despondent for the entirety of this game. That's not really a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
I had hoped earlier this season that things would shake out in such a way that this game would only be important to one team and thus I would be able to pick a side for the game and stick with it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) this game held implications for both teams. Both teams gained bowl eligibility weeks ago, but the the narrative of their seasons was on the line. While the cheesehead in me is sad that the Badgers lost, I think, in the end I am happy that the game turned out the way it did. Frankly, Northwestern needed this game more.
That might seem to be an odd statement, but, looking at the reality of this conference it makes sense from both a bowl perspective and a recruiting perspective. The current Big 10 standings have three teams at 10-2 on the season, with Ohio State taking the championship based on their better in conference record. OSU will thus claim the Big 10's automatic BCS berth and head to Pasadena to take on the Pac-10 champ. As far as at large berths go, Iowa will probably claim another for the Big 10, and Penn State has an outside chance of grabbing one also. If they didn't get an at large, PSU would be slotted into the Capital One bowl vs. a SEC team.
Wisconsin, then, was priced out of the BCS a long time ago. Even at 10-2, it would have been unlikely for them to move from their slot in the Outback bowl, and at 9-3 (assuming a win in two weeks over Hawaii) they won't drop from that perch either. Further, Wisconsin's team is a young one. They have performed remarkably well for such a freshman-sophomore loaded squad, and I see only bright things ahead of them.
Northwestern was in a similar bowl game spot. With the upset of Iowa and the expected victory over Illinois, Northwestern had vaulted themselves to 7 wins and past the rest of the mushy middle of the Big 10 to claim a ticket to the Champs Sports bowl. The victory today gives them eight wins, but they still sit behind Wisconsin and unless the Badgers falter in Hawaii they will still have a worse record by a game. Because Michigan State lost to Penn State today, there is no team capable of leapfrogging the 'Cats. Northwestern is as stuck as Wisconsin.
So, then, we must look at this game from a recruiting perspective. Wisconsin will always do well in recruiting among Big 10 teams. They are a flagship state school known both for academics as well as athletics. They have the loyalty of an entire state, as well as a history of a great football team and will always be competitive with the upper tier Big 10 teams for recruits. A victory tonight wouldn't have altered that in any meaningful way.
Northwestern, by contrast, could gain a significant boost from this victory. With today's win they have sealed an eight win season after coming from virtually nowhere to reach nine wins last year. They will not only be going to a bowl two years in a row, but a warm weather bowl at that (no Pizza! Pizza! here). Despite the dismal beginning to this season, they defeated two of the three ranked teams they played against, and came one quarter away from upsetting the third when Penn State came to town. These upsets, if they can be combined with the 'Cats first bowl victory in 60 years, would seal the impression in recruits minds that Fitz is determined to build a consistently winning program in Evanston that will compete with the conference's upper tier.
Thus, the team that needed the victory most managed to pull it out, and I am at least moderately happy for that.
After the jump, I do a multiple personality recap of the action on the field...
The only way to really address the in game action today is for me to look at it both as a Northwestern fan and a Wisconsin fan. Because Northwestern comes first alphabetically, I'll start with them.
Bama Hawkeye takes a look at the sweet goods on the line this weekend in the Big 10...
Graham and Law Buck engage in dueling coverage of the OSU and Michigan rivalry game...
It was good to see the 'Cats start this game off on all cylinders. I like this style of play much better than their "wait until we're down by an absurd margin and then mount a nail-biting comeback" gameplan.
Kafka lead the 'Cats on their opening drive from the Northwestern 25 yard line for a score. The defense then answered that by coming out of the gate and largely containing the John Clay led Badger offense and forcing them to punt away their first possession. Both teams then three and outed before Northwestern managed to end the quarter with a field goal to take a 10 point lead on Wisconsin.
I was heartened by the fact that all of Northwestern's running backs - Scott Concannon, Stephen Simmons, and Arby Fields - managed to make contributions to Northwestern's game today. At least Concannon and Fields will be back next year, and I am unsure if Simmons, a senior with another year of eligibility, will stay as well. Even if Simmons is gone, the competition between Concannon and Fields during camp next year will only be a positive for Northwestern. It is true that Northwestern runs a spread offense from the shotgun, but having versatile running backs to compliment the mobile QBs will always make the receivers more dangerous.
The second quarter was not quite as kind to the 'Cats. Wisconsin carried over their drive from the 1st and converted it into a John Clay touchdown. Northwestern managed to get the ball back for all of one play before it was fumbled away by Scott Concannon and recovered by Wisconsin. While I never like to see turnovers, I can't put too much heat on Concannon as he has been quite sure handed for most of the games this year. Wisconsin went to their tight end for a TD to give Bucky a four point lead.
Stephen Simmons then broke off a great 64 yard kick return to put the 'Cats within smelling distance of the Badger redzone. Mike Kafka rattled off several passes to Drake Dunsmore, Zeke Markshausen, Arby Fields, and Andrew Brewer to once again take the lead at 17-14. I was happy to see Kafka playing in a much more mobile and healthy way than in the last few games, and it was great for him to end his last regular season on a winning note. Hopefully he can cap off his time at Northwestern with a bowl victory in a few weeks.
Northwestern's defense three and outed the Badgers and then on their next drive Kafka executed a great end-around pass to Markshausen who pitched it downfield to a wiiide open Sidney Stewart. The ball was perfectly thrown and took advantage of the Wisconsin secondary, which isn't exactly the most dominant in the Big 10.
Northwestern regained their 10 point lead 24-14 and never really looked back. Stefan Demos once again looked his automatic self and tacked on three more field goals for the remainder of the 'Cats 33 points.
The final score of today's game really doesn't do the defense justice. Yes, the 'Cats let Bucky come unacceptably close to a comeback win, but the defense played a good game for all 60 minutes. Three different Wildcats had sacks - Brad Phillips, Corey Wootton, and Vince Browne. The 'Cats managed to hold John Clay to only 102 yards rushing and 1 TD, which is pretty good considering he's the best RB in the conference. They also managed to step up in the crucial moments, forcing two turnovers during the forth quarter. Brian Peters recovered a clay fumble, and Jordan Mabin ended the late Badger threat with a great interception of Tolzien in the final seconds.
All in all, a good way to end the season. I think with a healthy Kafka the Wildcats will be very competitive come bowl time, and I'm looking forward to a great Champs Sports Bowl match up.
Go U! NU!
Now, I'll let my slightly more depressed dairy state side take over. This really was a trap game for my Badgers. While they were coming off three wins, Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan aren't exactly formidable competition this year. Northwestern is a deceptive team who had only been getting better as the season has gone on. It seemed that the Badgers were in danger of looking past both Northwestern and Hawaii towards the bowl season, and I think that's just what they did.
The Badgers simply played sloppy football, and it cost them the game.
The one bright spot on the white and red side of the ball was the offense. The Badgers executed a balanced gameplan that got more dangerous as the game went on. Yes, they started off slowly, but Clay managed another triple digit ground game with a score, and Scott Tolzien threw for 235 yards and 2 TDs - both to the newly full strength Garrett Graham. Nick Toon also showed why he's going to be a big threat for years to come, as he had 7 catches for 70 yards, a nice follow up to his 98 yard game at Michigan. I don't know that he will ever live up to his father's stats, but he is definitely a solid part of the Badger offense and has a good chance to be their top receiver for the next year or two.
For all his inconsistency this year, Tolzien had a solid game, throwing only one interception in the closing seconds on a last ditch effort to move the Badgers downfield. For someone who was presumed to be a career backup at best, this season has been a good one and I'm looking forward to next year. Wisconsin finally has a quarterback who can make both the short quick throws and the deep passes. I'd like to see a win against Hawaii and a bowl victory to cap off his first starting season... regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, the competition between him and Curt Phillips will make for an interesting camp next year.
Unfortunately, this was not one of the defense's better efforts. They allowed the most points they have all season, even more than they did to Ohio State, and even my other half would agree that the 'Cats are most certainly not the Buckeyes. Frankly, the Wisconsin defense was just not equipped to handle the Northwestern spread. The secondary is the weakest part of the defense and it showed. Kafka burned the Wisconsin defense for 326 yards passing and 2 TDs. The defense also looked completely fooled by the end around to Zeke Markshausen... he's a receiver for goodness sakes! He shouldn't be able to throw a TD! Gah.
This was also only the third game of the entire season in which the Badgers had no interceptions (the other two were against Northern Illinois and Iowa). They did have one fumble recovery, but lost the turnover battle overall. Still.... this is a young unit and can only really get better next year. I just hope we don't draw a spread based team in a bowl game, or it could get ugly.
Once again, the special teams was a Jekyll and Hyde unit. Two separate returns best show this.
In the second quarter, Isaac Anderson inexplicably picked up a kickoff in the end zone and ran the ball out... to the 5. Ugh. Wisconsin managed to get the ball out to their 18, but the resulting punt gave Northwestern great field position near midfield, and the Wildcats would convert that into a field goal. Sigh.
In the third quarter, though, the special teams partially managed to redeem themselves when David Gilreath returned a a punt 68 yards for a TD which pulled Wisconsin within 3 of Northwestern.
The kick coverage today was similarly mediocre. Northwestern managed one 60+ yard return and several 30 yard returns. Their shortest return was for 12 yards after a Welch field goal. That's not really a dominating performance.
The interesting thing about this game is that both Northwestern and Wisconsin have ST units coached by the head coaches. Northwestern, for the most part, manages to do it right. They constantly execute good returns and usually do not make stupid mistakes. Wisconsin, by contrast, is prone to such mistakes and to sloppily executed tackling on their return coverage. Simply put, as long as Bielema is still coaching that unit, you never know what you're going to get. Until he finally gets a full time coach, it will always be the Achilles heel of this squad. It is long past time for that change to happen.
Disappointing as all that was, I must give credit to the Badgers for not giving up. They fought hard and pulled within two points, taking the game down to the final seconds. They can still end the season strong in Hawaii, and a bowl victory would prove that an excess of youth does not necessarily spell doom in the NCAA. In truth, they can only get better from here.
On to Hawaii, On to the regular season finale, and ON WISCONSIN!!!!