EVANSTON, Ill. – Every clutch play by Peyton Ramsey. Every big hit by Northwestern's defense. It was all designed to send a message.
The Wildcats had something they wanted to say.
“We woke up the country now, and we need our damn respect,” cornerback Greg Newsome II said.
Ramsey threw two touchdown passes and No. 19 Northwestern shut down Graham Mertz and No. 10 Wisconsin for a 17-7 victory on Saturday that put the undefeated Wildcats in control of the Big Ten West.
Northwestern forced five turnovers — four in the first half — and sacked Mertz three times in its first win over a top-10 team since a 28-25 victory over No. 9 Nebraska on Nov. 5, 2011. Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana, was 23 for 44 for 203 yards, and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman had four receptions for a career-high 95 yards.
Rising from the ashes of an ugly 3-9 season, the Wildcats improved to 5-0 for the first time since 2015. They also moved to 5-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1996.
“Very resilient by our guys,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Just staying in the fight. It wasn't pretty. Old-school game, but they grinded it out all the way through to the finish.”
Wisconsin (2-1, 2-1) had committed just one turnover this year, a fumble during a 45-7 victory over Illinois on Oct. 23. The Badgers then had back-to-back games canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak within the program before rolling to a 49-11 win at Michigan last weekend.
Mertz, a redshirt freshman, lost a fumble and threw the first three interceptions of his career against Northwestern. Senior running back Garrett Groshek also lost a fumble in his return after he missed the victory against the Wolverines.
"Obviously when you turn the ball over the number of times we did, it makes it hard,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
Mertz was 23 of 41 for 230 yards. Jalen Berger had 15 carries for a career-best 93 yards for the Badgers.
Wisconsin managed to stay in the game thanks to stout defense. But Charlie Kuhbander kicked a 32-yard field goal with 11:35 left, and Northwestern finished off another second-half shutout. The Wildcats have allowed just 10 points in the final two quarters this season.
“Northwestern’s a great, veteran defense," Mertz said. "They knew what was coming with our progressions. Obviously it was something I’d love to get back, but now it’s just taking it as a learning experience and growing from it.”
Northwestern got off to a fast start. After Wisconsin went nowhere on its first possession, Ramsey tossed a 2-yard TD pass to Charlie Mangieri with 10:50 left in the first quarter. John Raine set up the score by drawing a pair of pass interference penalties in the end zone.
Groshek then fumbled the ball away for the Badgers, and Chiaokhiao-Bowman's 36-yard reception on a pass by fellow receiver Riley Lees moved the Wildcats to the Badgers 1. The play was originally ruled a touchdown, but a replay review showed Chiaokhiao-Bowman stepped out of bounds.
The overturned call took on added significance when Isaiah Bowser fumbled on the next snap, and Spencer Lytle recovered for Wisconsin in the end zone. The Badgers then put together a six-play, 80-yard drive, tying it at 7 on Mertz's 49-yard pass to Chimere Dike for the freshman's first career touchdown with 5:14 left in the opening quarter.
Wisconsin had a couple chances to move in front in the first half, but Mertz fumbled on a sack by Blake Gallagher and threw two interceptions to Brandon Joseph. The first pick was deflected by linebacker Paddy Fisher before it went through the arms of tight end Hayden Rucci.
After Joseph's second interception, Northwestern put together a seven-play, 72-yard drive to go ahead to stay. Ramsey made a terrific throw to Chiaokhiao-Bowman for a tiebreaking 25-yard touchdown on an over-the-shoulder grab with 56 seconds left in the half.
“I remember seeing the ball up in the air on the touchdown ball and just thought ‘Wow, 12 is great. He just put this in a perfect spot,’” a grinning Chiaokhiao-Bowman said.
Northwestern is going to have to deal with increased attention in the coming days after its best win of the season so far. It's in line to move up in the AP poll.
Wisconsin: Even with Mertz's trouble, the Badgers outgained the Wildcats 366-263. Their defense allowed just two conversions in 15 third downs. They just couldn't overcome the turnovers.
Northwestern: The Wildcats finished with just 24 yards rushing on 23 attempts, putting a lot of pressure on Ramsey. Finding a more consistent ground attack could be a key for the rest of the season.
Wisconsin: Hosts Minnesota next weekend.
Northwestern: Visits Michigan State next weekend.
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25