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Q&A: What to expect from Wisconsin vs. Northwestern

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Inside NU brings us up to speed on the Wildcats.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers look to stay in the Big Ten West division race when they head to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday.

UW (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) takes on a NU squad who has won three of its last four games and played very well in a 24-20 loss to the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes at the Horseshoe last week. The Wildcats boast some formidable skill players who could change the game, especially if the Badgers can’t stop the run.

To preview the Wildcats on both sides of the ball, B5Q welcomed Inside NU’s Zach Pereles for our weekly Q&A.

The Wildcats are 4-4 overall but 3-2 in the Big Ten and have won three of their last four games. The only loss was in Columbus against the No. 6 Buckeyes, and took Urban Meyer’s team to the limit. Generally speaking, how have they improved from their 1-3 start?

The biggest thing to point to would be the improved play in the trenches. Offensively, the line has gone from embarrassingly bad to pretty solid, having only given up a handful of sacks over the last month after giving up 16 through the first four games. That in turn really helps quarterback Clayton Thorson, running back Justin Jackson and most importantly offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who has finally opened up his playbook. Defensively, the team has been able to defend the run better (with OSU being the one exception), and the pressure it has manufactured on passing plays has really helped a young secondary.

With Wisconsin not winning in Evanston since 1999, is Ryan Field haunted or did someone put some spell on the Badgers since that win 17 years ago?

The theme of these games should honestly be #LetsGetWeird. The games between these two of late have been really, really strange. Northwestern has actually decided to cut the Ryan Field grass to a reasonable length this year, though, so that may help out.

Offensively speaking, it seems like Northwestern has key players in the right skill positions. Clayton Thorson is third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (242.8) and touchdowns (15). Senior wide receiver Austin Carr leads the conference in receptions (58), receiving yards (878) and touchdowns (nine). Justin Jackson is second in the conference in rushing yards (868) and is on the verge of his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season. What makes those players so special, and how have they progressed not just this season, but throughout their careers?

I’ll start with Thorson, who has shown pretty incredible improvement since his freshman season. A guy with a pro frame (6’4, 220 pounds), Thorson has good arm strength and has come a long way regarding pocket presence and hanging in there to deliver strikes downfield. He’s willing to spread the ball around and he can cover sideline to sideline with his passes, showing good velocity on throws to the far sideline. He’s also pretty mobile, which is something defenders will have to keep an eye on.

His favorite target by a wide, wide margin is Austin Carr, who has gone from walk-on running back to the Big Ten’s leading wide receiver. He runs impeccable routes and doesn’t drop passes—like, ever. He’s not really fast but he’s extremely quick in and out of cuts, and McCall does a great job getting him open using a variety of packages. He’s been really impressive, and he’s very good on third down, too.

Then you have Justin Jackson, who’s been a workhorse basically since he arrived on campus. He gets stronger as the game goes on, and he uses a bevy of moves to break tackles or simply make defenders whiff. He loves the jump cut (which has flat-out embarrassed some guys this year), but he'll also incorporate a pretty impressive stiff arm. He's very patient and has fantastic vision. If he gets going early, this is a very tough offense to defend.

Where can the Wildcats’ offense be exploited?

The line has improved a lot as I said earlier, but their advanced statistical rankings are not very good, showing it is still not where it needs to be. I think that’s the biggest area of concern, especially given who’s lining up across from them this weekend.

Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is well respected by head coach Paul Chryst. Who are the standouts in his front seven at Northwestern?

All-American middle linebacker Anthony Walker, Jr. is rounding into form after picking up a knee injury in the preseason, and Ifeadi Odenigbo has eight sacks this year, with seven coming in the last four games. Those two guys are the biggest names to watch out for, especially when it comes to making plays in the backfield, but also keep your eyes on Nate Hall and Joe Jones, two outside linebackers who can absolutely fly. Hall had his best game of the year against Ohio State last week and was elevated to a starting role because of it.

NU ranks last in the conference in pass defense, allowing 274.8 points per game. What’s led to that mark, and have the Wildcats improved throughout the season? Are there other areas where the defense is vulnerable?

Coming into this season, this was expected to be a position of relative strength. But then starter Keith Watkins II tore his ACL in camp. Two weeks later, No. 1 CB Matthew Harris suffered his third concussion in four years, and this one ended in him retiring from football (it was the right decision, and Harris is an awesome guy). Since then, redshirt freshman starters Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo have also missed time, forcing the Wildcats to turn cornerback-turned-wide receiver Marcus McShepard back to the defensive side of things, and he’ll probably get the start this Saturday. Improvement has been slight as McShepard gets reacquainted with his old position, but that's by far the most vulnerable area.

What are your keys to the game, and your prediction?

If Northwestern runs the ball well early, that’ll do wonders for the offense as a whole. If not, it’ll be a long day. The Wildcats need to win up front and then win on third down. If they can do that, they can win. It's going to be close. I’ll take the Wildcats at home, 21-20. The Ryan Field Curse is real!