So by now you have probably heard the stat that Wisconsin went the entirety of the last decade winless at Northwestern. It didn't matter how good the Badgers were, the Wildcats were always a little bit better. Even during the 1990s, the Badgers got hit with scares or worse at Ryan Field. Men of a certain age probably still haven't forgiven Northwestern for making Barry Alvarez wait one season longer for a bowl game in 1992.
Point of fact, Northwestern has a tendency to play up and over Wisconsin's level at Ryan Field. Why do I mention this? Simple. Because on paper, this looks like the sort of game the Badgers should just cruise to victory in. Northwestern's been struggling despite a big win over Penn State. Wisconsin is averaging 7 yards per rush, Northwestern's averaging under 3. That seems like a decided statistical advantage, right?
Well, Northwestern's front seven has been putting up some pretty good numbers along the way. Linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis have been averaging over eight tackles a game, while defensive ends Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo have both made plays in the backfield -- combined, they've come up with 6.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. It's a front seven that just might have enough talent to bring some pain when they stack the box.
And we all know they're going to stack the box. Obviously, Wisconsin can run. But Northwestern's allowing under 3 yards per rush right now. That's going to lead to the most dangerous thing for the Badgers: they're going to have to pass to win. A smart offensive coordinator would be able to get passing yards on the Wildcats. Cal ate them up through the air. Northern Illinois passed efficiently. Penn State had some struggles, and Western Illinois had to pass 50 times to get their yardage.
So what does that mean for you? Playing the sidelines and spreading a defense out can get you yardage through the air. So here's where your own joke about Andy Ludwig's playcalling goes, if you're so inclined. Go ahead.
Heh. Good one.
So here's why I'm scared, but not despairing. The Badgers have been smacking teams around on defense, and the Wildcats? They struggle on the ground. Running back Justin Jackson went through September with just over 4 yards per carry, and he's their best threat. Wisconsin's allowing 2.76 yards per carry; Northwestern is gaining 2.95 yards per.
So, like Wisconsin, Northwestern's going to have to get some throws going to get a consistent offensive threat. The Wildcats' top offensive threat is attempting to get the ball to superback Dan Vitale in space. They also have receivers with height that could probably out-jump a Badger on a 50/50 ball in 6'5 Kyle Prater and 6'3 Cameron Dickerson.
But this is a Badgers team that's getting hurries and attacking the quarterback. Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian has been inconsistent, and with an offensive line allowing almost three sacks per game, Dave Aranda should well be able to dial up some cool plays for Derek Landisch along the way. If the defense has to win this game for the Badgers, so be it.
As it stands, this is a game that should be closer than expected for Wisconsin. Northwestern has a stronger-than-expected front seven, and if the Badgers are really going to try and play a two-quarterback system on the road, it could be something offensively messy.
Still this should be a game where the Badgers get to 4-1, even if it's despite themselves.