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EVANSTON-After mixed results during non-conference action and a bye week, it’s time for Northwestern to take a step up in class. The Wildcats open Big Ten play on Saturday at Wisconsin and begin what head coach Pat Fitzgerald called “heavy lifting.”
The Wildcats had an up-and-down season-opening win over Nevada, a disastrous blowout loss at Duke and an impressive demolition of lowly Bowling Green. Now they face No. 10 Wisconsin, the defending Big Ten West division champions who are 3-0 and coming off of a bye week of their own.
Fitzgerald knows the challenge his team is facing.
“You’re playing an enormous, athletic, physical offensive line and the best tight end (Troy Fumagalli) in the country,” said Fitzgerald, who also pointed out that Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook went 18-for-19 for 256 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-6 win over BYU on Sept. 16.
The teams’ M.O.s may be vastly different, but there may not be two more evenly matched Big Ten teams than Northwestern and Wisconsin. Over the last 26 years, each team has won 13 games. The Wildcats run a spread offense and the Badgers like to pound the ball on the ground, but the games usually go down to the wire.
In 2014 and 2015, the contests were decided by a single score. Wisconsin won last year’s matchup 21-7, but it was 13-7 until halfway through the fourth quarter. Northwestern came out on the short side of a couple beatdowns in Madison, including a 70-23 shellacking in 2010, but most of the games over the years have been tight ones.
“It seems like they’ve been back-and-forth games and the team that typically makes the least amount of mistakes wins,” said Fitzgerald at his press conference on Monday. “We know who they are, they know who we are…it comes down to execution, comes down to not beating yourself and find a way in the fourth quarter to win the game.”
Really, that’s the way most Big Ten games are decided, according to quarterback Clayton Thorson.
“Everyone kind of knows what you’re going to do on each side of the ball,” said the redshirt junior. “There’s not a ton of surprises, there’s always a few wrinkles here and there. But it’s going to be a hard-hitting game. Most games aren’t decided until the last half of the fourth quarter.”
Last year’s game in Evanston was no exception. “They finished the game better than we did and they won the game,” he said.
Thorson will make his 30th career start on Saturday and 18th in Big Ten play. But he remembers very clearly his first conference game, against Minnesota in 2015. The Wildcats beat the Gophers 27-0, but the game was just 3-0 until Thorson punched in a touchdown with 1:36 left in the first half. Then they pulled away in the second half.
“Our offense was playing fine but we only had three points to show for it because it was so back-and-forth and they would get quality stops,” he said. “We weren’t shooting ourselves in the foot, I don’t think we had any turnovers. But the margin for error is so small, if you have any missteps the other team is going to pounce on it and be ready to go.”
When he finally crossed the goal line, Thorson recalls a sense of relief more than anything.
“I remember thinking, Man, when I scored, it was like, Finally! We finally got a touchdown. We piled it on in the second half a little more, but I realized that all the games are gonna be like this… It’s fun playing close games. Way more fun, way more exciting.”
Fitzgerald has talked many times about how difficult it is to win a Big Ten game, and Saturday’s matchup will be a stern test for the inconsistent Wildcats, especially in the noisy cauldron of Camp Randall Stadium. Northwestern fared badly in its first road game, and Durham is a far cry from Madison.
But after a physical week of practice during the bye week – “we had a hard go every day last week,” he said – Fitzgerald is confident his players are up to the task.
Besides, “That’s why you come to Big Ten schools is to compete. You want to compete against the best. The best players, the best fan bases, the best venues, the best coaching. That’s why you choose a place like Northwestern.
Are they ready? Yeah, they’re ready. I think they were born ready.”
“Now you’ve got to go make it happen.”