Northwestern had another opportunity in the spotlight at home and were unable to get that breakthrough victory again. The Wildcats went conservative again.
Northwestern can always find a reason to give its fans some faith. The run through October with wins at Michigan State and at Iowa and a revitalized offense led to that gutsy performance at Ohio State. Confidence was still brimming heading home to take on a stout Wisconsin team.
Plenty were giving the Wildcats a fair shot at scoring the upset over the Badgers.
Wisconsin shut that door pretty quickly, even as they precariously nursed a six-point lead for nearly the entire second half.
The Badgers dominated the line of scrimmage and kept the Wildcats from doing much of anything offensively. They powered through the defensive line, allowing Corey Clement to pick up chunks of yardage. The only they could not do was break out the big play, save from a few spectacular catches and a breathtakingly well-executed end around from wide receiver Jazz Peavy. They did not have to with their dominance along the lines in a 21-7 victory at Ryan Field on Saturday.
The defense stood tall and made plays when they had to. Undoubtedly Northwestern got some help from kicker Andrew Endicott missing two field goals. But the offense was stuck.
From top to bottom for Northwestern, it was another big season-defining and program-defining opportunity on broadcast television lost. Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern find themselves incapable of winning the big game again and again.
Maybe this game does not have all of that riding on it. This was a top-10 Wisconsin team and one of the best defenses Northwestern — or any team — will face all year. The Wildcats could lose this game with little shame about it.
Just not like this. Not looking completely one dimensional and completely outgunned. This was the kind of game that made Northwestern’s belief it could still sneak into the Big Ten title game completely laughable. This was the kind of game that made Northwestern look like it did early in the season when it was losing to Illinois State.
The Wildcats amassed just 316 yards, with only 39 coming on the ground. Again and again, Clayton Thorson had to step back to throw on a day he did not have it. His usually sharp passes were skipping short or thrown behind the receivers. The offensive line was barely giving him enough time to throw.
Worse still, the Wildcats gave star running back Justin Jackson 13 carries for 42 yards. His longest run was for 28 yards, a burst on third down toward the end of the second quarter that helped set up Northwestern’s only score.
The Wildcats were still in the game, yes, but they were never truly in it offensively. They lost all of their rhythm and dual-threat capabilities. Wisconsin was largely ready for Austin Carr (and he still managed 132 yards and 12 catches) and forced Thorson to get happy feet waiting in the pocket. That is, until the Badgers got to him in the fourth quarter, including a strip sack while the Wildcats were driving into field goal range.
The scoring drive — a two-minute drill for a touchdown — a fourth down stop in the first quarter and the drive for the fumble were the only times Northwestern ended a drive in Wisconsin territory.
The Badgers dominated the Wildcats in all phases, pinning them inside their own five on two occasions, including a punt in the fourth quarter that buried any chance for Northwestern to build momentum and get itself back into the game.
Following the game, Pat Fitzgerald lamented the fact his team became one dimensional. The Wildcats played into the Badgers’ hands, he said.
The fact Northwestern came out passing and never really gave their running game a chance was the sign of a gameplan that gave Wisconsin’s rush defense too much respect perhaps and outthought itself in some ways.
This was not the aggressive gameplan Northwestern used nearly to upset Ohio State the week before. The wildcats were conservative both with their throws and their playcalling. The team did not feature its best running back and Thorson was stuck throwing underneath.
Wisconsin dictated a lot of this — especially with their defensive line play — but Northwestern could never give itself the jolt it needed.
The Wildcats had nothing to lose last week and played like it. Not recklessly, but with some abandon to go out and try to win the game.
With a lot more on the line against a quality opponent, Northwestern lost that looseness about them. The moment got a little big for Northwestern. And the Wildcats could not solve the puzzle.
That is seemingly a common refrain for Pat Fitzgerald. Every time it seems his program is picking up momentum and developing its identity, it trips over itself.
Northwestern is 4-5 now. The Wildcats are out of the Big Ten West race. They have to win two of their final three games to reach bowl eligibility. There is no reason to think they will not.
But how the Wildcats went conservative with their gameplans against the Badgers — and even dating back to their losses early in the season — is a problem that continues to plague them just when things seem to be turning a corner.
Northwestern will have to wait another year before the team gets a chance in the spotlight. The rest of this season is about settling down in the middle and building momentum for that moment.