With a bye week to finally get some semblance of health and just move up in the rankings, the No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers (8-2, 5-1) get a chance to avenge the Andy Ludwig of it all last season when they take on the No. 20 Northwestern Wildcats (8-2, 4-2) on Saturday -- and truth be told, it's setting up to be a really good match-up. You have two really good defenses that can handle what the other teams offense can do. In short, we might be in for a rock fight.
When you look at Northwestern, their passing game is highly similar to Maryland. The receiving crew is far from a strength as superback! Dan Vitale currently leads the team in receptions with 28. In fact, if we're being truthful, wide receiver Christian Jones, second in receptions with 22, is more H-Back than pure wide receiver, and running back Justin Jackson is third in receptions with 18. So the Badgers veteran secondary is going to have an edge over the wide receivers of Northwestern even before we talk about their quarterback.
When you talk about freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, you have someone who has all the positives and negatives of Maryland's Perry Hills. Thorson is mobile, helping to beat Nebraska and Stanford with his legs. That said, he's 57-of-117 for 548 yards with two touchdowns against three interceptions since the Minnesota game. It's a 48.7 percent completion rate and 4.7 yards per attempt. As it stands, they're going to have to pull something unseen in the passing game if the conference leading Badgers rush defense shuts Jackson down.
That is no guarantee, however. Jackson rolled off a season high 162 yards in last season's match-up with Wisconsin, and has put up over 100 yards against both Duke and Penn State, which are the best rush defenses he has faced to date. Wisconsin does represent another step up, and again, passing has been theoretical at times for Northwestern, but Jackson is quietly in third place for rushing yards in the Big Ten.
The big question for Wisconsin offensively. Will redshirt senior tight end Austin Traylor be back for the game this week? Traylor has been hurt since the Iowa game, and outside of the brief flash of brilliance for running back Dare Ogunbowale against Nebraska and the return for junior running back Corey Clement against Rutgers, the Badgers have missed Traylor's blocking ability. The offensive line is going to be cohesive at the very least, though Northwestern has been above average against the run. That has shown itself to be more than enough to limit the Badgers effectiveness in the run game.
Not to call Northwestern's defensive line as dominant as Maryland's, but defensive ends Deonte Gibson and Noah Lowry are active in getting to the backfield -- and from the looks of things sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker's set to be a star by the time he leaves Evanston. He's currently one of 28 players sitting over 90 tackles and is tied with Wisconsin outside linebacker Joe Schobert in tackles for loss with 15.5. The Badgers will need blocking help in this one.
When healthy, Traylor also flashed value in the passing game, especially near the red zone. In fact, he's still currently tied for second in touchdowns with redshirt senior wide receiver Alex Erickson, and an extra target for Northwestern to defend is going to be rather helpful. While they haven't really picked off many passes (they currently sit at nine, which is an average pace for the year), they've been dominant when it comes to breaking up passes. They're at No. 11 nationally with 47. The cornerback duo of Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose both currently sit in double digit pass breakup land.
So if you're asking me if this is a situation that has the potential to start the why is Joel Stave debate plumes of death wafting over this website one more time, I have an answer: Yes, yes it does.
Stave has 34 career interceptions, 5 have come against Northwestern. One well-jumped route could provide a much-needed score for the Wildcats in this potential rock fight.
Special teams-wise, you're going to have to give credit to Northwestern kick returner Solomon Vault. In between being the location of the maguffin in my next spec script, he leads the Big Ten in average per return, returning two kicks for touchdowns. The special teams coverage is going to have to be ready here. Otherwise, it's all pretty similar. Both teams have punters that are averaging a shade over 38 yards per kick. Both teams have place kickers that have missed at least six field goals -- and Wisconsin sophomore cornerback and kickoff returner Natrell Jamerson, while not the consistent threat Vault has been, is also athletic enough to take it for six.
Now, if you've come this far and you're wondering why I haven't mentioned Clement in more than a passing way, it's simple. The entertainment purposes are expecting that he is going to go great guns for the Northwestern game. The initial lines opened with Wisconsin a ten and a half point favorite over the Wildcats, and the line has slid to the Badgers as a full eleven point favorite. And if Clement plays even at less than 100 percent, the Badgers should go into the Axe game looking to get themselves win number ten.
If Clement doesn't play, which judging by the article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus and tweet from Wisconsin State Journal's Jason Galloway, could be a possibility -- trust the Badgers defense. I trust Joel Stave won't threaten to break his interception record against Northwestern. I would also trust the Wisconsin line to shrink considerably. But either way, the outside shot of something beyond a Holiday Bowl is still very much in play.