Tom Oates: Wisconsin renews unpredictable rivalry with Northwestern with a lot on the line
EVANSTON, Ill. — They don’t play for some manufactured trophy, but make no mistake, the football series between the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern has become a rivalry.
That rivalry is not based on longevity like UW’s series with Minnesota or similarity like its series with Iowa. Instead, it is based on unpredictability. Since 2000, you simply never know what’s going to happen when the Big Ten Conference West Division teams meet.
“There’s is no trophy with it, but the game is always super-intense and it’s physical,” guard Michael Deiter said. “It’s everything you want in a Big Ten football game.”
There will be some added layers when the 20th-ranked Badgers meet the Wildcats at 11 a.m. today at usually dreary Ryan Field.
For one thing, at least a share of first place in the West will be at stake. Northwestern is 4-1 in the division while UW, Iowa and Purdue all stand at 3-1 in what has become a surprisingly competitive race.
Second, UW could be without quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who has started 30 of the Badgers’ past 31 games. Hornibrook, who has been up and down this season, was in the concussion protocol all week and is questionable to play. Promising sophomore Jack Coan will make his first start if Hornibrook can’t go.
But games between UW and Northwestern have become far bigger than any one player. UW coach Paul Chryst is in his fourth season and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is in his 13th, but they’ve been matching wits consistently since they were assistants at their respective schools in 2002. UW has won more than Northwestern, averaging 9.4 victories over the past 18 full seasons, but the Wildcats have generally been competitive, averaging 6.7 wins during that time.
“The games we’ve had with them in the past, you’ve got to fight for everything,” Chryst said.
Indeed, there is a great familiarity between the programs and that has led to interesting, often entertaining games. Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz was UW’s defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, years when Chryst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator.
“Pat’s been there a long time and I really respect what he’s done with the program,” Chryst said. “They’ve had great continuity on their staff. I had the chance to work with their defensive coordinator, Hank, and he’s a really good football coach. I think their players, they play the game the way that you appreciate. They’re tough, they’re smart, they’re talented. You know that you’ve got to earn everything. I think that’s what leads to (the rivalry). In the past, it’s been good football teams, too. ... You can almost expect anything in a game like this.”
Chryst would know. Since 2000, the teams have split 12 games, with neither team winning more than two in a row. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story.
UW is 5-2 at home and 1-4 in Evanston during that time. However, it snapped a four-game road losing streak in the series with a 21-7 victory at Northwestern in 2016.
Along the way, there were scores of 47-44, 51-48 and 33-31. There also were scores of 16-7 and 13-7. There was even a 70-23 score in 2010, a drubbing the Wildcats likely haven’t forgotten.
In general, UW wins blowouts and Northwestern wins close games. In UW’s six wins, the smallest victory margin was nine points and the average victory margin was 23.8 points. In Northwestern’s six wins, the largest victory margin was nine points and the average victory margin was 4.8 points.
UW was ranked in the Top 25 for 10 of the 12 meetings but only went 4-6 in those games. The Badgers had a 2-0 record in the games when both teams were unranked.
Northwestern was ranked only twice in the 12 meetings, winning when both teams were ranked — 13-7 in 2015, otherwise known as the Jazz Peavy game — and losing when it was ranked and UW wasn’t.
As you can see, there is little rhyme or reason when UW and Northwestern tangle. Winning at Evanston, however, has been difficult for the Badgers. Ryan Field isn’t as cavernous as most Big Ten stadiums, seats only 47,130 and often isn’t full, which can lead to a flat atmosphere.
“Eleven o’clock in Evanston is not exactly the most bumping environment,” linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “We always talk about how we’ve got to bring our own juice and bring our own energy.”
Northwestern used to burn UW’s defense with slippery running backs and dual-threat quarterbacks, but lately the games have become low-scoring, physical battles. Fitzgerald’s recent teams have been big and physical along both lines and the front seven on defense has been difficult to run against, even for UW. Clayton Thorson, a four-year starter at quarterback for Northwestern, is strictly a drop-back passer following knee surgery, but he’s one of the best in the Big Ten.
“It’s just a tough, physical football game very time,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “They’re a big team. They’re a team that knows how to win and how to scrap and how to find a way to get things done, which I think we’ve done a good job of as well. I think it’s going to be two evenly matched teams and the better team on that day is going to win.”
The stakes are higher than usual, but that only adds fuel to the fire in what has become a good rivalry.