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Wisconsin vs. Northwestern: Preview, predictions, odds

Will the Badgers win their first Big Ten game of the season on the road in Evanston? Our guys think the UW fans who make the short trip will go home happy.

Ronald Martinez

The predictions

Jake Kocorowski (+77): Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 21

Phil Mitten (+78): Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 19

Andy Johnson (+82): Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 17

Mike Fiammetta (+84): Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 20

Drew Hamm (+88): Wisconsin 21, Northwestern 20

Andrew Rosin (+92): Wisconsin 17, Northwestern 10

Jake Harris (+98): Northwestern 27, Wisconsin 17

Louis Bien (+100): Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 20

The reasoning

Both Wisconsin and Northwestern enter this game with more questions than answers. Will the Badgers face the Northwestern team that lost back-to-back home games to Cal and Northern Illinois to start the season or the squad that shocked everyone by winning 29-6 over Penn State in Happy Valley?

Is Wisconsin -- which opened as a 9.5-point favorite in this game and is now giving up 7.5 points -- the team that held a 24-7 lead on LSU in the third quarter in Houston and then set school records in total offense and rushing yards against Bowling Green, or is it the group that was tied 3-3 with South Florida at halftime at Camp Randall Stadium one week ago?

Evanston has not been friendly to the Badgers this century. Wisconsin has lost its last three games at Ryan Field and has not won there since 1999. Additionally, over the past nine seasons, the Badgers are 1-8 in their first Big Ten road game of the year.

Nonetheless, UW is too stout defensively and boasts too much depth for the Wildcats to prevail Saturday.

Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian has finally gotten into a groove passing the ball for Northwestern. The Florida native has completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 872 yards in 2014. Interceptions are a problem for Siemian, however, and he has already tossed four balls to the other team through four games. He is not much of a threat to run, so expect the Badgers' front seven to bring a steady pass rush and try and flush him out of the pocket.

Venric Mark's sudden departure from the Wildcats over the summer left a void at running back. Freshman Justin Jackson and senior Treyvon Green have been the beneficiaries. Jackson is averaging 4.2 yards per carry, but he has only scored two touchdowns this season and he has carried the ball more than 15 times in a game just once. Meanwhile, Green is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and has yet to find the end zone.

They will run behind an offensive line that features seniors Paul Jorgensen at tackle and Brandon Vitabile at center. The line has allowed nine sacks in four games, while Wisconsin's defense has tallied 10 sacks in the same amount of time. Expect the Badgers to take Siemian down at least twice Saturday.

Northwestern's wide receivers include Kyle Prater, a USC transfer whom Wisconsin recruited aggressively, and juniors Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson. But it's H-back Dan Vitale who leads the team in receptions (18) and receiving yards (216). The Badgers rank 18th in the country in allowing just 174.5 yards per game.

The Wildcats appear to have hit their stride defensively as well. The team has given up a total of 13 points in its last two games. After shutting down Christian Hackenberg and Penn State's offense, it has to be a concern how Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy will fare.

In McEvoy's only game as a starter away from Madison, he completed 8-of-24 passes for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He has struggled to complete intermediate and deep passes throughout the young season. He is, however, dynamic with his legs and carried 11 times for 158 yards against Bowling Green.

Northwestern ranks 36th in the country against the run, allowing 117.3 yards per game. The Wildcats allow opposing runners just 2.91 yards per carry and have surrendered only two scores on the ground this season. Their 4-3 defense features heavy defensive linemen capable of giving Wisconsin's offensive line fits. The linebacking corps is dominated by seniors.

For the Badgers to score at their usual pace, they will need to complete some passes against a defense that gives up 11.36 yards per completion and 247 yards per game through the air. If McEvoy isn't up to the task, perhaps head coach Gary Andersen will turn to a familiar face. Junior signal-caller Joel Stave has reclaimed his backup quarterback job, proclaiming that his throwing issues are behind him. Many observers felt Stave had won the starting job in fall camp, and it will be interesting to monitor his involvement, particularly if McEvoy struggles.

Sophomore kicker Jack Mitchell has made three of his four field goal attempts, while junior punter Chris Gradone ranks 87th in the nation with a 39.3-yard average per punt.

Special teams were strong for the Badgers in September, as senior Kenzel Doe averaged 11.0 yards per punt return and freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone made five of his six field goal attempts.

The forecast calls for temperatures near 47 degrees and a 40 percent chance of rain at kickoff. This could be a sloppy affair decided by a critical play on either side of the ball. We expect the Badgers to escape with their first conference win of 2014.

Who has the edge?

Offense: Wisconsin

Defense: Northwestern

Special teams: Wisconsin

Coaching: Wisconsin

Intangibles: Northwestern