Northwestern Is Really Going to Play for a Big Ten Title

One of the Power 5's least predictable divisions has a new champion, which just refuses to lose the games it needs most.
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At the beginning of the 2018 season, it was a foregone conclusion who was going to represent the Big Ten West in the conference title game. Wisconsin had a veteran offensive line, a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Jonathan Taylor and the luck of a favorable schedule, but the Badgers couldn’t take advantage, losing at home to BYU and seeing their national contention aspirations disappear a few weeks later with a thrashing at the hands of Michigan.

Northwestern, who was picked to finish third in the division, blew double-digit leads to Akron and Michigan in September before bouncing back to win four straight league games, including an impressive 31–17 win over Wisconsin, and take control of their own destiny in the division.

Down three defensive backs and relying on its third-string kicker, things again went Northwestern’s way on Saturday. Pat Fitzgerald’s scrappy bunch is headed to Indianapolis after the Wildcats secured a 14–10 win over Iowa, Wisconsin lost to Penn State 22–10 and Minnesota routed Purdue 41–10, locking up a division that three months ago no one expected to make so little sense.

True freshman running Isaiah Bowser led the way for Northwestern with 153 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, and Iowa spoiled its final chances to steal a victory with two late fumbles to hand the Wildcats their 10th straight win over a division opponent.

Both teams sputtered out of the gate, with the Hawkeyes providing the lone score in the first half thanks to a Miguel Recinos 46-yard field goal. Northwestern had 75 yards of offense in the first 30 minutes, totaling 12 yards in the second quarter.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson was picked off twice in the third quarter, and the Hawkeyes cashed in two plays after his second interception on Nate Stanley’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. On its ensuing possession, Northwestern wasted a 19-play, 55-yard drive that took seven minutes off the clock when Jake Collins missed a 37-yard field goal.

The Wildcats took the lead for good when Thorson, who continued his just-good-enough senior season by finishing 15 for 30 for 122 yards and two interceptions, connected with an outstretched Bennett Skowronek for a beautiful 32-yard touchdown strike to give them a 14–10 lead with 9:27 to play.

After Northwestern went three and out, Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent was hit and fumbled at midfield wasting a possible scoring drive. The next time Iowa got the ball, Ivory Kelly-Martin coughed up the ball, and the Hawkeyes never got it back.

The Wildcats have three weeks to prepare for the East champion, finishing their regular season with Minnesota and Illinois. Their season may not make sense, but at least the rest of the conference has half a month to come to grips with it.