67F Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the first to realize that falling short in spirited games against top Big Ten contenders isn't enough, emphasizing his squad must ultimately win those close contests to achieve its goal of winning a conference title.
The 19th-ranked Wildcats may have another one in store this week.
Northwestern faces a rested Wisconsin team Saturday looking to earn its first victory at Camp Randall Stadium in 13 years.
Last week's showdown with No. 4 Ohio State lived up to the hype, as Northwestern (4-1, 0-1) held a three-point lead with less than 10 minutes remaining. The Wildcats weren't able to hang on, though, and lost the advantage late before falling 40-30.
The script was similar to close losses last season, with Northwestern holding late fourth-quarter leads against Michigan and Nebraska in heartbreaking defeats. Fitzgerald realizes that trend can't continue for his team to be included among the Big Ten's elite.
"I think we're gaining on where we want to be. We want to be a consistent team that challenges for a championship," Fitzgerald said. "Obviously we didn't accomplish the goal on Saturday night to win the game. I thought we played our best football of the year and we can still be better."
There were plenty of positives last week, though. Trevor Siemian threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns, Venric Mark played after missing three games and rushed for 60 yards on 17 carries, and senior Rashad Lawrence had a career day with eight catches for 149 yards.
The loss to the Buckeyes sure wasn't debilitating.
"We're a mature enough team to realize that we did make good plays and that we're coming together as a team and that all of our goals that we want are still ahead of us," receiver Mike Jensen said. "This one game doesn't cancel out a season. We still realize that we're a good team, and that we're building, and that we played our best game. Now we've got to build on it."
The Wildcats likely will need another strong performance this week. They've lost three straight at Wisconsin since a 47-44 win Sept. 23, 2000, and they've lost the two meetings under Fitzgerald at Camp Randall by a combined 79 points.
The Badgers (3-2, 1-1) are coming off their own tough loss to Ohio State, falling 31-24 on Sept. 28. Their other defeat was a controversial 32-30 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 14.
Coach Gary Andersen's team shares a similar outlook as Northwestern - it has to win the close ones while striving to appear in a fourth straight Rose Bowl.
"Hey, if we're going to be a great team, we've got to win these close games, and we talk about that," Andersen said. "I don't see it having a negative effect. These kids will plow through it, and they'll work hard all season regardless of wins and losses."
The bye week seemed to help Wisconsin's health, too. Melvin Gordon, averaging a conference-best 139.6 rushing yards per game, suffered a knee injury against Ohio State but will play Saturday. Tight end Jacob Pedersen (knee) and receiver Kenzel Doe (hamstring) will be good to go after missing time.
Northwestern also must contend with quarterback Joel Stave and receiver Jared Abbrederis, who caught 10 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown against the Buckeyes.
"Another big game," Jensen said. "Defending Big Ten champions three times. Going into their place. Coming off a bye week. It's a big game."
Andersen knows his squad will be in for a tough battle as well having to prepare for the Wildcats' two-quarterback system that features Siemian - the Big Ten's top-rated passer - and dual-threat Kain Colter.
"They have two very talented quarterbacks, and some guys that make that offense go and run at a high level," Andersen said. "Again, it's not just one kid, it's four, five, or six special players, and the rest of the supporting cast does a very, very nice job for them. It's a good football team."
Wisconsin has committed only five turnovers through five contests, but the Wildcats have forced a Big Ten-most 14.