Nov. 05, 2016
After the first five games of the Big Ten season, it essentially comes down to one game......at Northwestern. The six game gauntlet ends this upcoming week when the Badgers visit Evanston, Illinois, to take on the Northwestern Wildcats. Just like Camp Randall Stadium is a ‘House of Horrors’ for Nebraska, Ryan Field is just that for Wisconsin. The Badgers have not gone into Evanston and emerged victorious since a 35-19 win in 1999. In that game, Ron Dayne ran for 170 yards and two touchdowns and Jamar Fletcher had a 93-yard pick six to lead Bucky to victory. Since then, the Badgers have played four times in Evanston and lost each time. In all four games, Wisconsin was ranked and Northwestern was not. The Wildcats have won those four games by a combined 20 points. In last year’s game, Wisconsin dropped a heartbreaker 13-7 after Jazz Peavy caught a game-winning touchdown with seconds remaining, but it was overturned by replay. Bucky will be out for revenge and a win would catapult this team to a possible West division title.
When Wisconsin runs the ball...
The Badgers are moving up the rankings in this category. After rushing for 223 yards against Nebraska, Wisconsin has moved up to No. 56 in rush yards per game. Bucky finally eclipsed the four yard per carry mark, as the Badgers are up to No. 85 in that category. As evidenced by the rushing yards and average since the bye week, the offensive line has improved significantly. The Badgers will need more of it in Evanston this weekend. Corey Clement has rushed for 380 yards in his last three games. Both Bradrick Shaw and Dare Ogunbowale came alive last week. Ogunbowale, normally a pass-catching running back, had 120 yards on just 11 carries against the Huskers. If Wisconsin can get those three running backs going, they will be nearly impossible to beat. Like Wisconsin, Northwestern is a good run stopping team. Although not as dominant as Wisconsin, the Wildcats come in a respectable 38th in rush defense, allowing just under 142 yards rushing per game. They have allowed 13 rushing touchdowns, which is middle of the pack in the country. The Badgers will need to get the ground game going since that will not only help Wisconsin move the chains, but also open up the passing game.
When Wisconsin passes the ball...
It seems like Wisconsin will keep going with the two-quarterback system. Neither Alex Hornibrook or Bart Houston against Nebraska. Hornibrook had a decent game if you were to just look at completion percentage. He went 10-of-16 for 71 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The 71 yards on 16 attempts is just 4.4 yards per attempt. That becomes even worse when you take out his 30-yard completion to Troy Fumagalli on the second possession of the game. Both quarterbacks threw interceptions late in the game, and Houston’s led to Nebraska’s game-tying field goal. Both Hornibrook and Houston led the offense to a pair of scores, which makes me think this two-quarterback system is here to stay, at least for the time being. As a team, the Badgers rank 99th in passing, but one of the quarterbacks will need to make a few plays through the air in order to come out on top. Northwestern is 112th in the country in pass yards allowed per game, but has only allowed seven touchdown passes. Despite being 112th in pass defense, the Cats climb to 50th in opposing quarterback rating. Northwestern has not allowed a touchdown in each of the past two games, so that pass defense ranking is a little deceiving. Even in a big passing game against Indiana, the Wildcats forced Hoosiers quarterback Richard Lagow to throw the ball 59 times to get his 317 yards passing. Somehow, the Badgers will need to be able to make plays through the air. Getting the running game going will help.
When Northwestern runs the ball...
Northwestern is toward the bottom in rush offense (109th), but Justin Jackson is a very solid running back. After only having one 100-yard rushing game and in the first four games and only breaking 80 twice, Jackson has turned it on the last four. In his last four games, he has rushed for 529 yards and averaging five yards per carry. He has been a thorn in the side of Wisconsin in his first two years, rushing for 301 yards, leading the Cats to two wins. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is also a threat running the football for Northwestern. He rushed for nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns last year and has rushed for four more scores in 2016. The Badgers will once again be without nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. However, Wisconsin’s run defense has been really good even in the absence of the big nose tackle. Obviously, Wisconsin’s defense would be better with Sagapolu plugging up the middle, but the Badgers have held Iowa and Nebraska’s run game to a combined 3.3 yards per carry. Wisconsin is 12th in the country in rush defense, so the Cats will have their work cut out for them.
When Northwestern passes the ball...
This will be the most intriguing matchup of the game. Wisconsin is 22nd in opposing pass yards per game, but it vaults up to No. 10 in opponents passer rating. The Badgers defense has only allowed four passing touchdowns this year and just two in the five conference games so far. But this is a new challenge. Northwestern has arguably the best passing attack the Badgers have seen this year, led by Thorson. At his disposal is one of the best wide receivers in the nation, Austin Carr. The 6-foot-1 receiver leads the Big Ten in receptions (58), yards (878) and touchdowns (9). Carr had a streak of six consecutive games with a touchdown reception and has had at least 100 yards receiving in five of the last six games. That includes the game last week in which he had a career-high 158 yards receiving against one of the best pass defenses in the country, Ohio State. He will need to be double teamed at all times unless either Sojourn Shelton or Derrick Tindal can prove they can cover him one-on-one. Thorson, on the other hand, started out slow after a subpar freshman season that saw him throw seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Since Northwestern’s 0-2 start, the sophomore signal caller has thrown 14 touchdowns in six games, including four games in which he threw three scores. The pass protection also has improved for the Cats. In their first four games, Northwestern’s offensive line allowed 15 sacks. However, in the last four, the unit has allowed a total of six. Wisconsin will need to be able to put pressure on Thorson with linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. The winner of this matchup will likely win the game. Carr will need a big game in order to pull the upset.
Once again, Wisconsin will be on the short end of the this battle. The Badgers punters are last in the entire country in punting average. Northwestern is ninth in the country at kick returning, but for fortunately for the Badgers, P.J. Rosowski is one of the best in the country at kicking it for touchbacks. Rosowski needs to be able to neutralize the Wildcats return game. When it comes to kicking, both kickers are 6-of-9 on the year. However, Northwestern’s Jack Mitchell has made five consecutive field goals since starting out the year 1-of-4. However, in that stretch, the longest field goal made has been 33 yards. His longest field goal overall this year is 40 yards. Wisconsin’s Andrew Endicott is coming off a game against the Cornhuskers in which he missed a field goal and an extra point, both in crunch time.
Wisconsin has something to prove and will be looking for revenge after last year’s controversy. Badgers players are tired of hearing about how Wisconsin has not won in Evanston in 17 years. Bucky will leave it all on the field because deep down, the Badgers know this is the last major hurdle in order to make a return trip to Indianapolis. I don’t believe the Badgers will be able to shut down Carr, but I think be held to around 100 yards. I also think Wisconsin will blanket everybody else and force a few Thorson turnovers, which will give the Badgers offense a short field. Clement will continue his strong play with well over 100 yards and a touchdown. It will be a low scoring game and I think the Wildcats will cover the seven point spread, but I do think the Badgers will make plays down the stretch in order to come out on top.
Prediction: Wisconsin 17, Northwestern 13