Northwestern found itself at a crossroads earlier this season after blowing a 17-point first-half lead at home and losing to Michigan. The week before, an 18-point lead was erased again at home, in an embarrassing loss to Akron.
Those blown leads seem to be a thing of the past, as the Wildcats have sprinted to the top of the Big Ten West thanks to a 31–17 win over division preseason favorite Wisconsin, which had its 16-game winning streak against Big Ten West foes snapped.
Northwestern used some critical mistakes by Wisconsin to secure its fourth straight win and deal the Badgers' hope for another league title appearance a critical blow.
Wisconsin was shorthanded from the outset, as starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook was ruled out as he continues to deal with a concussion. The reigns were turned over to sophomore Jack Coan, who had thrown a total of five passes in his career prior to Saturday’s game.
Coan, in his first career start, was largely ineffective, going 20 for 31 for 158 yards and one touchdown.
Wisconsin’s other problem was holding on to the ball. The nation’s leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor, was held to 46 yards on only 11 carries and turned it over twice on fumbles.
The Big Ten’s team rushing leader gained 165 yards on the ground, almost 120 less than its season average. The Badgers also went 4 for 12 on third down and failed on both attempts on fourth down.
Wisconsin’s problem started after halftime.
Northwestern went three-and-out on its second possession after the break, but on the ensuing punt, Wisconsin was called for a crucial roughing the kicker penalty. The Wildcats cashed in four plays later on a Kyric McGowan 24-yard touchdown catch from Clayton Thorsen, extending the lead to 21–10.
Taylor’s second fumble on Wisconsin’s next possession led to a 26-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander. Taylor saw the ball only once more after his 10th career fumble.
Coan completed the trifecta of fumbles when he tried to scramble after facing a heavy rush and coughed up the ball, which was recovered by linebacker Nate Hall at the Wisconsin 13-yard-line.
Again, the Wildcats took advantage and put the game away on a two-yard run by freshman Isaiah Bowser, who finished with 117 yards rushing.
Thorsen threw for 167 yards but was picked off three times. Wisconsin did score 14 points off his miscues, but Northwestern scored 17 points off of the Badgers' turnovers.
The Big Ten West race got clearer, with Northwestern sitting atop the conference at 5–1 and losses by Purdue and Iowa dropping the pair into a three-way tie with Wisconsin for second.
The Wildcats' road to their first Big Ten title game berth is still a tough one, with road games at Iowa and Minnesota after they go out of conference to take on Notre Dame next week, but the path got a lot simpler on Saturday.