This is a big game. It may not have the cachet it could have been thanks to Ohio State being stupid good-at-football jerks, but still, this is a big game.
And I know what you're thinking.
"Okay Rosin, we get it, this matters on all sorts of levels. How's it going to go down?"
Well, strawman, first of all you can breathe. The bye week looks like it was enough to have a healthy Melvin Gordon coming back to wreck some defenses. It means the Corey Clement-bludgeons-a-defense show will likely be preempted until a road show in Champaign, but Northwestern's rushing defense is average. On a per-play basis, it's 61st nationally. You're going to see Melvin Gordon and James White likely get something rolling. You can almost count on a home run from Gordon.
That will be fun. And while Venric Mark is back, he wasn't enough to get Northwestern's running game going against Ohio State's defense. They do have some running cachet in Mark and Kain Colter; and Treyvon Green had some big days earlier in the season, but this is a running game that is in the Top 25 based on the sheer volume. The offensive line allows penetration and while the big play defense some expected after a dominant practice season hasn't surfaced. The Badgers look likely to hold Northwestern down when it comes to running the ball.
"So fine. Why are you calling it a big game then?"
For one, Northwestern can pass. Trevor Siemian is 6th nationally in yards per attempt (and somehow making a quarterback job share work in major college football). The number puts him directly ahead of Tajh Boyd, Aaron Murray, and Marcus Mariota. And unlike some people? The Wildcats have reasonable threats at the second and third receiver slot (Christian Jones and Rashard Lewis) to go with the solid possession work of Tony Jones.
Oh, and the Wildcats have a running back with the exact number of receptions as James White in Dan Vitale.
The worry comes that the Badgers haven't done well against the pass. Sure, statistically they've done well overall (13th per game/ninth per attempt). But in games where they faced quarterbacks with a professional future (Arizona State and Ohio State)? They've averaged a 23-of-38 with 275 yards passing and two scores. Also, while they averaged 32.43 percent overall in allowing third-down conversions, it's roughly 10 percent higher in those two games.
So to put it simply, it's of the utmost importance that the secondary plays closer to the level of whence they played the cupcakes than the games where they lost. But that being said, we might be seeing the emergence of a new star on the defensive line. Warren Herring is the current leader in sacks and tackles for loss on the heels of three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in the last two games.
If there's a game for Jacob Pedersen or Alex Erickson to make their presence felt, this would be it. Northwestern plays a bend-but-don't-break defense when it comes to the pass. They're 110th against the pass in regards to yardage, and 36th per attempt. But if the Badgers are going to run the ball as well as I expect them to, Jared Abbrederis is going to get a chance to go over the top for a score.
Now it's time for fun facts with Andrew Rosin. The fun facts for today? Northwestern leads the nation in interceptions returned for a touchdown with four. Collin Ellis has two. They all occurred in the games against Cal and Maine. They proved to be the difference as the Wildcats won by 14. So, let's keep it snug, Joel Stave. Let's keep it snug.
The good news? There's definitely a reasonable path for the Badgers to travel to get the win. Keep most of third-down situations at 3rd-and-short, and consider field goals allowed a success. Jeff Budzien is a good placekicker. But they have a tendency to bog down in the red zone.
The Badgers are healthy, and if they can keep Tyler Scott out of the backfield? This could be a pretty big day.