First things first. After Northwestern had come up short against No. 8 Wisconsin 21-7 on Saturday, Pat Fitzgerald gave credit where it’s due.
“I want to congratulate the Cubs,’’ the White Sox fan/NU coach said. “What a special week it was in Chicago. Now the only thing left in my life is a Red Line World Series. And if the Cubs can win the World Series, that’s gonna happen.’’
And then he talked about the end of another drought. The Badgers’ victory, their first in five trips to Evanston since 1999, was greeted with raucous approval by the huge contingent of Badger fans in the crowd of 42,016.
“Wisconsin may be the most complete team we’ve seen on tape in all three phases,’’ said Fitzgerald, pointing to NU’s meager 39 yards on 19 rushes.. “They forced us to be one-dimensional. We just weren’t able to get it done being one-dimensional.’’
The tough part for the Wildcats is that for all their troubles, they were in position early in the fourth quarter, trailing 13-7 with a first-and-10 at the Wisconsin 19.
Then disaster struck. A holding penalty pushed NU back to the 29 yardline. And then quarterback Clayton Thorson fumbled while being sacked by Wisconsin nose tackle Conor Sheehy. Safety D’Cota Dixon returned the fumble 22 yards, setting up a 45-yard Badger touchdown drive that sealed the Wildcats’ fate. Wisconsin added a two-point conversion for a 21-7 lead with 8:57 left.
“I probably should have just kept it and taken the sack,’’ Thorson said. “That gave them a lot of momentum. Can’t do that.’’
Besides cashing in on the game’s only turnover, Wisconsin dominated some other key areas. It was 7 of 19 on third-down conversions to NU’s 5 of 18. And it controlled the ball for 40 minutes.
“We played right into Wisconsin’s hands,’’ Fitzgerald said. “They had the time of possession [advantage]. Against teams [like that], you have to win on third downs, and we failed at that today. And then, a decision Clayton would love to have back. But it wasn’t one play. We didn’t play well as a team.’’
The win kept the Badgers (7-2, 4-2), who are 3-2 vs. top-10 teams, in the hunt for the Big Ten West title despite tough losses to Michigan and Ohio State.
This was the second straight setback against a top-10 team for the Wildcats (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten), who came up short in a taut 24-20 battle at No. 6 Ohio State last week.
“My hope is that it does hurt,’’ Fitzgerald said. “We’ve basically given away games the last two weeks against two very good opponents. I’m not minimizing the challenge. But it’s not like we played clean enough to win.’’
NU now finishes its season against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois with an eye toward to giving itself the best bowl resume it can muster.
“We’re tired of being close,’’ said receiver Austin Carr, who had 12 catches for 132 yards and NU’s lone TD. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot against really good teams. Give Wisconsin credit. They played great. They’re one of the hardest working teams in the Big Ten. But when we beat ourselves. . . you can’t beat two teams in the same day.’’
After being shocked by Western Michigan and Illinois State in its first two games, NU remains determined to keep making the most of its turnaround
“I think we’re going to respond,’’ Carr said. “At the beginning of the year, when we didn’t have the start we wanted, we responded. That’s what we have to do.’’
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