Madison, Wis. — No. 21 Northwestern finished strong, and benefited from a few favorable calls and a slew of Wisconsin mistakes.
It made for a finish that was so wild even Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald was a little stunned.
Justin Jackson ran for 139 yards and a touchdown, and the Wildcats used a goal-line stand to hold on for a 13-7 victory over the 21st-ranked Badgers on Saturday.
“I’m still kind of speechless. I’m not sure what I just said. I don’t know how that unfolded … but it did,” Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats (9-2, 5-2) moved into a tie for second in the Big Ten’s West Division with the Badgers (8-3, 5-2), who had won five in a row.
At several different points, it looked as if Wisconsin’s win streak would continue for at least another week. But five turnovers, six sacks for the Wildcats, and a sluggish running game ultimately doomed the Badgers.
And they still had a chance at the end.
With 1:47 left, Joel Stave drove the Badgers from the 26 to the Northwestern 1. But Stave was forced to leave before Wisconsin’s final play from scrimmage after he was dazed by a sack.
Bart Houston’s pass to the end zone sailed just out of reach of Tanner McEvoy on fourth-and goal from the 11 with 2 seconds left, sealing the win for Northwestern.
“To see the way our defense rose up and got the stop on fourth down — we did it all the way to the last play,” Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern snapped a four-game road losing streak to Wisconsin with its first win in Madison since a 47-44 victory in double overtime in 2000.
Jackson had 35 carries on a chilly day, including an 8-yard touchdown run in the first quarter set up by the first of two interceptions for Stave.
The Badgers’ bend-but-don’t break defense benefited from two missed field goals for Northwestern. But Wisconsin missed out on several opportunities to move ahead.
What at first looked like a touchdown reception for Jazz Peavy on first-and-goal from the 1 on the final drive was ruled incomplete after a review.
“I thought he had a couple feet down, a couple steps,” coach Paul Chryst said before adding, “doesn’t matter what I think.”
On the previous play, Stave hit tight end Troy Fumagalli on a pass inside the 5 and Fumagalli looked as if he rolled into the end zone for a score. But a review showed Fumagalli’s knee was down at the 1.
In the third quarter, Alex Erickson’s 78-yard punt return for a touchdown that could have given the Badgers the lead was negated after officials ruled Erickson had called for a fair catch.
Stave, Erickson and 17 other Wisconsin seniors will have a few painful memories of their final game at Camp Randall Stadium.
“You turn the ball over five times … and even have a chance to win the game, that’s a credit to that group,” Chryst said. “I actually thought we won it a couple times but we didn’t and you’ve just got to keep playing.”
Northwestern held Wisconsin to minus-26 yards rushing, a number skewed by the yardage attached to the six sacks. Deonte Gibson had two sacks.
But Northwestern could never shake free of Wisconsin despite all off the Badgers’ mistakes.
The Wildcats’ Jack Mitchell missed two of four field goal attempts. He did make a 37-yarder with 4 minutes left, allowing the Wildcats to capitalize on Stave’s second interception of the day.
Stave finished 20 of 34 for 229 yards. Peavy, a sophomore, had a breakout performance with five catches for 88 yards.
Otherwise, the Wildcats dominated the line of scrimmage and allowed just a 9-yard touchdown run by Corey Clement in the third quarter. Clement finished with 24 yards on 10 carries.
Other than Jackson, Northwestern didn’t have much production. Clayton Thorson was 9 of 20 for 60 yards against Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense.
The Wildcats’ opportunistic defense was a little better.
“We just wanted to prove to Wisconsin, the rest of the nation and the Big Ten that we were a great defense,” Gibson said, “and I think we got that done today.”