EVANSTON, Ill. — Motivation has been plentiful through the years for Northwestern, which has a keen radar for often undeserved disrespect thrown its way.
Despite years of success, the narrative has refused to shift. Too slow. Too academic. Not enough talent. Not enough athleticism.
The No. 19 Wildcats hope their 17-7 victory Saturday against No. 10 Wisconsin at Ryan Field in Evanston will help them shut down those stereotypes for good. The win puts Northwestern (5-0) alone atop the Big Ten West.
The Wildcats improved to 5-0 for the first time since 2015 and are 5-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1996.They are one of just two undefeated teams in the conference along with Ohio State (4-0), their potential foe in the Big Ten championship game — if Northwestern can keep rolling.
“We woke up the country now and we need our damn respect,” defensive back Greg Newsome II said.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald got the last laugh before he ran off the field, throwing a jab back at ESPN analyst Joey Galloway, who called the Wildcats “a bunch of Rece Davises running around,” referring to the middle-aged college football TV host.
In his postgame video conference with reporters, Fitzgerald referred to the Wildcats as “the Fighting Rece Davises” and said Galloway’s comments were “incredibly disrespectful.”
“That really ticked our guys off,” Fitzgerald said. “We just use that as fuel in the engine. We have really good football players. We have a bunch of guys who are going to be potentially All-Big Ten, potentially All-American, potentially in the NFL. … We have one bad year and it’s like 19-whatever again.”
Has last season’s 3-9 record ever felt so long ago?
Northwestern played its usual brand of tenacious defense like a team with something to prove. The victory was the Wildcats’ first against a top-10 team since a 28-25 victory over No. 9 Nebraska on Nov. 5, 2011.
In two games entering Saturday, Wisconsin had just one fumble, and quarterback Graham Mertz hadn’t thrown an interception. The Wildcats picked him off three times — twice by Brandon Joseph and once by Newsome — and recovered two fumbles.
They’ve held four of their five opponents scoreless in the second half. Wisconsin (2-1) didn’t score in the final three quarters Saturday after racking up 45 total points against Illinois and 49 against Michigan. Northwestern also sacked Mertz three times and held the Badgers to 3 of 16 on third down.
“It was more just us trying to be us,” Fitzgerald said. “Doing what we do. Nothing different. Nothing more. Nothing magical.”
Just good, old-fashioned, Big Ten defense.
Northwestern capitalized on only one of its turnovers — a critical 72-yard, no-run drive in the second quarter on which quarterback Peyton Ramsey completed all seven throws, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for a 14-7 lead. Chiaokhiao-Bowman had four catches for 95 yards.
Ramsey, who completed 23 of 44 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns, showed his reliability again.
“Petyon showed his experience tonight,” Fitzgerald said of the Indiana graduate transfer. “He didn’t force anything. We’re so thankful he’s part of our football family. He’s just doing a terrific job.”
Ramsey’s steady play was especially important as the run game struggled to produce for a second week in a row, churning out only 24 yards on 23 carries, something the Wildcats can’t keep getting away with.
Northwestern got on the board quickly for a 7-0 lead on its opening drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Ramsey to tight end Charlie Mangieri. After that, it was a classic Big Ten grind-it-out Saturday.
Mertz was 23 of 41 for 230 yards. Jalen Berger had 15 carries for 93 yards for the Badgers. Even with Mertz’s troubles, the Badgers outgained the Wildcats 366-263. They just couldn’t overcome the turnovers.
The teams combined for 17 punts, and scored no touchdowns after halftime.
Northwestern will take it — proudly.
“We knew it was going to be a heavyweight fight, and that’s exactly what it was,” Fitzgerald said.
Northwestern has been tagged the underdog in 27 straight games against Wisconsin, but the Wildcats have won 13 times, according to the Big Ten Network.
No wonder Fitzgerald said he didn’t consider the victory an upset.
“This isn’t a surprise to anyone in our program,” he said. “This wasn’t an upset in our locker room. We fully expected it.”
The Wildcats finished a miserable 1-8 in the Big Ten last season. That has been proved a clear aberration as Northwestern is out to win its second division championship in three seasons.
Northwestern is bound to qualify for a bowl game for the fifth time in six seasons. That’s why all that underdog talk is as motivating as it is annoying to the Wildcats.
“Everyone thinks we’re just a smart school,” defensive end Earnest Brown IV said. “We keep fighting, fighting, fighting to get everyone’s respect. After this game I think we should get that right now.”
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