Northwestern holds off Wisconsin en route to 3rd win in row
EVANSTON, Ill. -- A purple mob rushed to the middle of Ryan Field, a home crowd celebrating Northwestern's 33-31 victory over Wisconsin (No. 16 BCS, No. 17 AP) on Saturday.
"I was right in the middle in the thick of things; it got a little rowdy in there. It's definitely a great feeling having fans rush the field," Northwestern's Jordan Mabin said Saturday after his interception in the closing seconds clinched the win.
The Wildcats built a 27-14 halftime lead behind the passing of Mike Kafka to Andrew Brewer and then used late defensive plays from Brian Peters and Mabin to hold off the Badgers.
"It was definitely an emotional day, having your parents walk out on the field with you. But we were here to win the game," said Brewer, a senior and converted quarterback who finished with six catches for 102 yards.
Northwestern (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) improved its postseason positioning with its third straight victory and will get a chance to win the school's first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin (8-3, 5-3) still has one more game to play at Hawaii. The Badgers couldn't get in position Saturday for a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter, even though they had ample opportunities.
"When we took the ball with about four minutes left, I felt pretty comfortable about being able to drive the ball down and if not score [a touchdown], put ourselves in field goal range," coach Bret Bielema said.
"Even taking the field the last time with 42 seconds left, the way these guys have battled through and finished ballgames, I felt pretty good."
Wisconsin's David Gilreath returned a punt 68 yards for a third-quarter TD to get the Badgers (8-3, 5-3) back in the game.
Scott Tolzien found Garrett Graham wide open in the back of the end zone for a 13-yard pass with 10:45 to go, pulling the Badgers within 33-31 and setting the stage for a wild finish.
Wisconsin then got the ball back three more times, but had turnovers on two of the possessions.
The Badgers got the ball with eight minutes to go but had to punt. They stopped the Wildcats and, after a holding penalty, had possession again at their 34 with 3:43 to go. But Wisconsin's John Clay fumbled and Peters recovered at the 41 with 1:44 left.
"I was trying to fight and get the first down. I let loose of the ball. I bumped into one of my guys and I dropped it," said Clay, the Big Ten's leading rusher who finished with 100 yards on 23 carries.
Northwestern had to punt again, and the Badgers got the ball back at their 21 with 42 seconds to go, before Mabin sealed the victory with his interception of a long pass from Tolzien intended for Isaac Anderson.
"I looked up and saw the ball coming and I'm like, 'Oh, wow, it's here.' I had to go up and get it. It's hard to explain that feeling," Mabin said.
"If I were to do it again, I probably would have thrown it underneath," Tolzien said. "Come crunch time we didn't get it done."
Tolzien completed 19 of 30 passes for 235 yards and two TD passes to Graham. Kafka had his fifth 300-yard passing game of the season, going 26 of 40 for 326 yards.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald -- who said he didn't like fans rushing the field because of the injury risk -- made a pitch for Kafka, his senior quarterback, to be the offensive MVP of the Big Ten.
The Wildcats are playing their best football at the end of the season and had beaten Iowa and Illinois the previous two weeks.
"I would say so," Fitzgerald said. "3-0 in November is a statement of where our program is now."
The Wildcats used trickery to build the halftime lead. Kafka lateraled to leading receiver Zeke Markshausen, who then passed to a wide open Sidney Stewart. Stewart caught the ball at the 6 and then went to the end zone to complete the 38-yard play and cap a three-play, 80-yard drive -- Northwestern's second TD in a span of 2:21.
Northwestern added a 38-yard field goal by Stefan Demos with 34 seconds to go after Wisconsin stopped the Wildcats on third-and-1 at the 20. Demos finished with four field goals.
Northwestern had gone up 17-14 when Brewer fully extended to catch Kafka's third-down pass in the end zone. His highlight reel reception was upheld by video review and set up by Stephen Simmons' 64-yard kickoff return.
2022 Big Ten Conference Standings