After Saturday's underwhelming performance against South Florida, Wisconsin enters Big Ten conference play with plenty of unanswered questions. At times during their first four games of the season, the Badgers have shown flashes of positive play by running the ball better than any team in the country and keeping opposing defense guessing with a quarterback who is capable of making plays with his feet. At other times, the Badgers' offense has come to a standstill and we are left wondering how this team will be able to compete in the Big Ten when it could barely score points in the first half against Western Illinois and South Florida.
Now Wisconsin will kick off its conference schedule with a very intriguing matchup against the Northwestern Wildcats. Having lost their last three matchups in Evanston, the Badgers are searching for their first win at Ryan Field since 1999.
Last season, the Badgers hosted the No. 19 Wildcats on Oct. 12. Northwestern, having just come off a devastating primetime loss to Ohio State the week before, was unable to get back on track against Wisconsin as Melvin Gordon ran for 172 yards and one touchdown en route to a 35-6 defeat in Madison. That loss was only the beginning of the Wildcats' collapse, as they proceeded to lose their next five games, ultimately finishing the season with a disappointing 5-7 record, going just 1-7 in Big Ten play.
As the Badgers look to open conference play with a victory, here are three things you should know about the Wildcats.
After a poor start in 2014, they appear to be improving
At 2-2, the Wildcats have also had their fair share of inconsistent play to start the season. After stumbling in their first two home games against California and Northern Illinois, Northwestern is now on a two-game winning streak after beating Western Illinois 24-7 and, most recently, traveling to Beaver Stadium last week and handing Penn State its first loss of the season with a convincing 29-6 victory.
The Wildcats played their best football of the season against the Nittany Lions on Saturday. The defense held Penn State's offense, which, prior to Saturday had been averaging 443.25 total yards per game, to a mere 266. On offense, quarterback Trevor Siemian was able to sustain drives at the beginning of the game by completing short passes that extended drives. Siemian finished the game 21-of-37 for 258 yards and one interception, while also scoring three rushing touchdowns -- all from 1 yard out.
The win against Penn State comes at a perfect time for Northwestern, as it enters the most difficult part of its schedule with upcoming games against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame. Having already equaled their total number of conference wins from 2013, the Wildcats will look to build off their solid play against Penn State in hopes of reaching their potential this tough stretch. On Saturday, coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged in his post-game press conference the development his team has already made this year, crediting the senior leaders.
'We're an immature football team that's maturing in front of our eyes," Fitzgerald said. "I'm really pleased and really happy with our seniors. This is a senior-type statement win to not have started the season the way we wanted to. That group of guys, our leadership council, our captains keep everything together. To just keep working their tails off to improve, that credit goes to those seniors and those guys.
There are many positive takeaways from the Penn State game that Fitzgerald can look to carry over against Wisconsin, especially on the defensive side. The Wildcats' run defense was able to hold the Nittany Lions to just 50 rushing yards, averaging only 2.0 per carry (although some blame also goes to Penn State's shaky offensive line and subpar rushing attack). Northwestern also held Penn State's offense to 3-for-17 on third-down conversions, something the Badgers' offense also struggled with in the first half against South Florida.
They live and die with the passing game
Since his freshman season in 2011, Siemian has gotten the opportunity to see the field on a regular basis and get reps at quarterback. Fitzgerald utilized a two-quarterback system with Siemian and Kain Colter in 2012 and 2013, with Colter providing a dual-threat option for the Wildcats while Siemian fit the role of the "better passer" who was capable of making throws from the pocket.
At 6'3, 210 pounds, Siemian possesses a strong arm coupled and the ability to put good touch and accuracy on his throws. While splitting time with Colter in 2012 during the Wildcats' 10-3 season, Siemian completed 128 of his 218 passes, throwing for 1,312 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. Last season, he received even more snaps due to Colter missing extended time with injuries and went 177-of-296 for 2,143 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In his final game of the year against Illinois, Siemian had a career outing, going 31-or-44 for 414 yards and four touchdowns, all career highs.
This season, inconsistencies have plagued Siemian, who is now the lone quarterback in the offense. Throughout the Wildcats' first four games, Siemian has made poor decisions from the pocket that have led to him throwing interceptions, fumbling or getting sacked on multiple occasions. He has also been inaccurate on many throws, often overthrowing wide-open receivers despite having sufficient time to throw from the pocket.
Against Penn State, Siemian started strong, completing 11 of 15 passes in the first quarter for 150 yards. Although he simmered as the game progressed, ultimately finishing 21-of-37 for 258 passing yards, it was by far the most impressive and most comfortable that Siemian has looked all year running the spread offense, and the senior quarterback acknowledged the quick start after the game.
"We got a first down and then we kind of set a tempo," Siemian said. "We had a rhythm to us that we haven't seen all year. Our identity is a rhythm offense, so when we have a chance to do that we are pretty effective. We aren't a finished product but it was nice to see us come along."
So far in 2014, Siemian's two leading receiving targets have been Kyle Prater and Dan Vitale. At 6'5, 225 pounds, the senior Prater is a big, physical receiver with excellent size and reliable hands that make him a consistent target. After four games this season, Prater has caught 12 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown. Expect him to pose a threat to opposing Big Ten cornerbacks as the season continues. Vitale, a junior, lines up as a "super back" in the Wildcats' offense, assuming the role as a fullback/tight end hybrid. With great hands and route-running abilities, Vitale has become Siemian's most used target in the offense, having caught 18 passes for 216 yards thus far.
Reliant on defense
Saturday, Jason Dorrow of Inside NU described the Wildcats' defense as "the backbone" of the team. So far, the defense has earned that label.
After four games, the Wildcats' defense ranks 48th in the country with an average of 364.3 yards allowed per game. Northwestern also ranks 19th in points allowed per game with 16.8. These numbers for the Wildcats are a huge improvement over what we saw from their 2013 defensive unit. Last year, Northwestern allowed an average of 423.4 yards per game (ranked 89th in the country) and 27.1 points per game (ranked 69th).
Big Ten Season
Gary Andersen previews Northwestern
Interestingly enough, no current Badgers players have played at Northwestern. Gary Andersen dropped that nugget and plenty more in his weekly Monday press conference.
Big Ten Season
Northwestern's defense has also had a greater success this year at stopping the run. In their first four games of the season, the Wildcats have allowed an average of 117.3 yards per game (just 2.9 per attempt) and a total of two rushing touchdowns. To the contrary, the passing defense has allowed an average of 247 passing yards per game (6.3 per attempt) and also managing to record 12 sacks and four interceptions.
Three impact players on the Wildcats' defense to look out for are Chi Chi Ariguzo, Nick VanHoose and Dean Lowry. Ariguzo, a senior linebacker who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten (media) the last two seasons, currently leads the team in tackles with 35, while also adding 2.5 tackles for a loss and one sack. Besides compiling 27 tackles so far, VanHoose has also been able to make plays in pass coverage, breaking up six passes, deflecting seven and recording one interception. Lowry has recorded 12 total tackles thus far, four for a loss of yards. On top of that, Lowry also leads the team in sacks with 3.5.
Saturday should prove an interesting matchup for the Badgers and the Wildcats. Wisconsin will get its first taste of Big Ten talent against a Northwestern team that no one really knows what to expect from. Will it be the team that let up 414 total yards at home to Cal? Or will it be the team that went into Penn State and held the Nittany Lions to just 266? Coming off the best performance of the year, Fitzgerald said in his post-game press conference on Saturday that he expects all units to continue improving as the season progresses, also pointing out that his team will first need to recover from a physical matchup last week against Penn State.
"They're improving," Fitzgerald said. "Are we there yet? Not even close. That, to me, is probably what's most encouraging is how much better we can in all three phases. We've got a lot of work to do. Number one, we've got to get healthy. We're a pretty beat up football team right now. Obviously, we're playing a great team next week (Wisconsin) at home. That's the great thing about playing Big Ten football. You get to tee it up every week against really physical teams."