1. Bring Wisconsin fans up to speed with Northwestern's season so far. What have been the highs and lows, and what are the general expectations for the rest of the year?
Northwestern got off to a shockingly fast start, beating Stanford in Week 1, 16-6. That set the tone for the first five weeks of the season-- outstanding defense and timely offense was the equation for winning. The Wildcats went 4-0 in non-conference play and then walloped Minnesota 27-0 in Evanston to get the hype train really rolling. For the first five weeks, people thought this Northwestern team could play anyone tough. But then came just about the lowest of the lows. A 38-0 loss at Michigan in one of the biggest games of the college slate that weekend followed by another blowout-- 40-10 to Iowa-- to drop the Wildcats to 5-2. The Wildcats righted the ship with a 30-28 win at Nebraska, but major questions about the offense remained, and they still do. After the bye, Northwestern snuck by Penn State with a late field goal and sluggishly beat downtrodden Purdue. Keep in mind that this team is 8-2, but the offense has been nowhere near that of the typical 8-2 team. Reasonable expectations for the rest of the year include a loss to Wisconsin and a win over Illinois, and a bowl sometime in late December against a middling Power 5 opponent.
2. What should Wisconsin fans know about Northwestern's offense?
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This offense is really, really bad through the air. Clayton Thorson completes just over 50% of his passes and the team averages under 150 yards. There have been multiple times this season in which Thorson has thrown for fewer than 20 yards in the first half. It's been a combination of inconsistent quarterbacking (which is to be expected from a freshman), up-and-down offensive line play, and a pretty underwhelming receiving core. The running game, though, has been fantastic, and when the Wildcats win, it's almost always because of their running game. Justin Jackson has been very good, following up his true freshman campaign with a solid sophomore season, but also factor in Warren Long, who has developed from a short-yardage back only to more of a threat as a true backup to Jackson. He has 4 touchdowns and is averaging 6.0 yards per carry. You also can't forget about Thorson's running ability, which is probably the best part of his game.
3. And what about the defense?
This defense has been the strong point of Northwestern's season. The team has a great mix of solid veterans and exciting youngsters. Up front, watch out for bookend senior defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. Lowry has been fantastic this year, and Gibson can win lots of 1-on-1 battles as well. But when you talk Northwestern defense, you have to focus on Anthony Walker, the sophomore middle linebacker. He makes plays all over the field and is outstanding playing downhill. He's a sure tackler with speed and smarts, a perfect combination for a middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense. Finally, the secondary is also very good-- perhaps the best unit of the defense-- led by standout cornerbacks Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose (second team All-Big Ten last year). Sophomore Godwin Igwebuike and senior Traveon Henry make up the aggressive, talented safety duo.
4. Should we expect a lot of Northwestern fans making the trip to Madison?
There probably will not be a ton of visiting fans Saturday, if I had to guess. Northwestern still struggles to get a true Big Ten-caliber crowd at home. When the Wildcats went on the road to Michigan at 5-0, there was a pocket of Northwestern fans, but nothing more. It'll probably be a small cohort of players' families, a couple handfuls of Northwestern students, and a few true diehard and area fans, but nothing more.
5. Do you have a prediction?
I'm going Wisconsin 17, Northwestern 13. Wisconsin's coming off a bye and is probably just a bit better offensively. That, combined with the home crowd, gives the Badgers a slight edge.