EVANSTON, Ill. – So perhaps the road to Indianapolis and the Big Ten title game, at least for the West Division contenders, runs through Evanston in 2018.
No one would have predicted that scenario in August when Wisconsin was ranked No. 7 in the Amway coaches poll.
Northwestern? The Wildcats weren’t in the top 25 and they weren’t expected to win their first division title.
Yet after the Wildcats dismantled the 19th-ranked Badgers Saturday at Ryan Field, every team in the West Division is looking up at Pat Fitzgerald’s team.
The loss left the Badgers at 3-2 in the Big Ten and 5-3 overall and damaged their chances to win the West Division for the third consecutive season.
Northwestern (5-3, 5-1) extended its winning streak to four games and retained sole possession of first place in the division.
The Wildcats dominated Wisconsin as Paul Chryst’s team committed gaffes on offense, defense and special teams.
The Badgers lost three fumbles, two by tailback Jonathan Taylor and one by quarterback Jack Coan, who made his first appearance of the season and first college start in place of Alex Hornibrook (concussion).
Wisconsin’s defense made several impressive stands, but a fourth-down pass-interference penalty on cornerback Faion Hicks led to a touchdown that allowed Northwestern to take the lead for good at 14-7.
Jack Sanborn was flagged for roughing the punter in the third quarter, a mistake that kept alive Northwestern’s second series of the quarter.
That ended with Clayton Thorson throwing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Kyric McGowan for a 24-10 lead with 6:23 left in the quarter.
With the running game sputtering, the defense wearing down and Coan unable to hit some key third-down throws, Wisconsin had no chance.
Coan finished 20 of 31 passing for 158 yards and a touchdown.
Taylor entered the game leading the nation in rushing at 158.4 yards per game and had reached the 100-yard mark in every game this season.
In addition to the two lost fumbles, Taylor was held to 46 yards on 11 carries, with a long gain of 10 yards.
With an anemic running game (78.1 yards per game) to offer support, Thorson came in averaging 41.2 attempts per game.
Thorson threw three interceptions and only one touchdown pass and finished 17 of 30 for just 167 yards. He added a 5-yard touchdown run, however, and the Wildcats rushed for nearly 200 yards.
That balance helped keep Wisconsin's defense off-balance for much of the day.
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