Oct. 30, 1999: Ron Dayne was in the middle of his Heisman campaign, Brooks Bollinger was under center for the Badgers and Barack Obama was still a member of the Illinois Senate. On that day, the no. 11 Wisconsin football team left Ryan Field with a 35-19 victory over Northwestern, despite being outgained offensively and losing the turnover battle.
Fast-forward 17 years: Dayne and Bollinger have long-since completed their UW and NFL careers, Obama is a few short months from wrapping up his second term as President of the United States, and that 1999 win remains Wisconsin’s last in Evanston, Illinois. At 11am Central this Saturday, the 2016 no. 8 Badgers will look to end the program’s 4-game losing streak at Ryan Field, as they take on the 4-4 Northwestern Wildcats. Adding to the intrigue is last year’s matchup, a controversial 13-7 Northwestern victory at Camp Randall Stadium.
Former Northwestern linebacker and two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Pat Fitzgerald is making his way through his 11th season as head coach at his alma mater. He leads a team that is coming off a hard fought loss at Ohio State, Northwestern’s third loss against a team currently ranked in the top-25. They’ll get their 4th shot at a top-25 upset on Saturday as the Badgers visit Evanston for the second time in three years.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, is hoping to keep their Big Ten championship hopes alive. They’ll need to beat Northwestern and hope for a loss from Nebraska to do that. Given Northwestern’s tough schedule and Wisconsin’s recent struggles inside their personal house of horrors, this figures to be a physical, sneaky-good game.
When and where is the game?
It’s an 11am Central kickoff from Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois on Saturday.
How can I watch?
The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC. Bob Wischusen will be covering the play-by-play, while Brock Huard (color) and Allison Williams (sideline) will assist.
How can I stream the game online?
Via WatchESPN.com or the WatchESPN mobile app on iOS or Android.
How can I listen to it on the radio?
On the Badgers Sports Network, where you’ll find the usual and terrific grouping of Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas and Patrick Herb. On satellite radio, you’ll find the broadcast on Sirius 84 / XM 84. Otherwise, head to BadgerSportsNetwork.com to find it. You can also listen on iHeartRadio (iOS/Android/online) by searching WIBA.
What can I expect to see?
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten; Depth Chart)
Last week: 23-17 (OT) win vs. Nebraska
Polls: No. 8 in College Football Playoff Rankings (last week: No. 10 in both)
Head coach: Paul Chryst, second season at Wisconsin (16-5)
Northwestern (4-4, 3-2 Big Ten; Depth Chart)
Last week: 24-20 loss at Ohio State
Polls: Not Ranked
Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 11th season at Northwestern (74-60)
When Northwestern has the ball:
Conversations about the Northwestern offense should start at wide receiver, where redshirt senior Austin Carr has been a force this season. The former walk-on has racked up 58 catches for 878 yards and nine touchdowns, all of which are more than double his totals from 2015 and lead the Big Ten Conference. No other player on the team has averaged more than 3 catches or 32 yards per game.
Figuring to look Carr’s way early and often is quarterback Clayton Thorson. Thorson is in his second year as a starter and, like Carr, has made considerable progress over 2015. His completion percentage has jumped seven percentage points, he’s already surpassed his touchdown total from last year and he currently ranks third in the conference in yards per game (242.8). The sophomore went nine of 20 for 60 yards in last year’s matchup; he should put more stress on Wisconsin’s secondary in this year’s matchup.
The Carr/Thorson combination and above rankings pose Northwestern’s offense as pass-only. That notion is not the case. While the team is ranked dead-last in the conference in rushing, they feature a running back that’s ranked second in the conference with 108.5 yards per game. He’s no stranger to success against the Badgers, either – in 2014 he put up 162 yards and 2015 he tallied 139 and a touchdown. Both games were Northwestern wins against highly-ranked Badgers defenses. Jackson’s success may hold the key again on Saturday; the Wildcats are 4-0 when he gets 26+ carries.
Thorson, Carr, Jackson and the rest of the Wildcats offense face a stiff test for the second straight week in the Badgers’ defense. Making matters even tougher for Northwestern, the Badgers continue to get healthier on defense. Though inside linebackers Jack Cichy and Chris Orr will remain out for the season and Olive Sagapolu will miss another game at nose tackle, the team is another week removed from cornerback Natrell Jamerson’s (questionable) leg injury. His return would help limit Northwestern’s passing game.
Bringing the heat up-front, per usual, will be outside linebacker TJ Watt. Watt was listed as questionable earlier in the week after suffering a left shoulder injury against Nebraska. His health means the Badgers pass rush should be at full strength. The Wildcats have struggled to protect the quarterback and have surrendered 2.6 sacks per game (tied-second most in the Big Ten). Inside NU’s Zach Perreles told Jake earlier this week that the offensive line, “has gone from embarrassingly bad to pretty solid.” The Badgers will look to test that.
When Wisconsin has the ball:
Besides general weirdness, there has been one constant throughout the games in Evanston between these two programs: turnovers. The Badgers, especially those playing quarterback, have turned the ball over to keep the door open for the Wildcats. Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston will likely split those duties and take care of the ball better than in past years. In the Badgers’ last trip to Evanston in 2014, Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave combined to throw four interceptions and complete only 12 of 29 passes. Those performances rendered Melvin Gordon’s 259 yards irrelevant. In fact, in each of the four games at Ryan Field since 1999, the Badgers had both a 100+ yard rusher and 1+ interceptions thrown. Combine that with the fact that Northwestern’s pass defense ranks last in the Big Ten (274.8 yards per game) and it’s clear that solid play from Houston and Hornibrook will be key.
Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw will once again work without two of their usual blockers this weekend. Right tackle Jacob Maxwell has again been ruled out, while fullback Austin Ramesh will sit the game as well. David Edwards will replace Maxwell for the second straight game and Alec Ingold will assume fullback duties.
Like the Northwestern offense, the defense features strong players at each level despite statistical downfalls. It starts up front with senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who leads the team and conference with eight sacks. The linebacking corps is led by middle linebacker Anthony Walker, Jr. Walker, Jr. was a 2015 third-team All-American and has filled up the stat sheet this season, ranking third on the team with 59 tackles. Joining Walker are linebackers Nate Hall and Joe Jones, who Zach Pereles highlighted as speedy outside backers.
When we covered the Northwestern offense, we noted that despite their stats, they have a running attack headed by the Big Ten’s 2nd-leading rusher. In addition to that, the rusher (running back Justin Jackson) has seen considerable success against Wisconsin. Similar claims can be made about the Northwestern passing defense. Despite ranking last in the Big Ten in defending the pass, the secondary is headed by sophomore safety Godwin Igwebuike. Igwebuike leads the team with 69 tackles (5.5 for loss) and is tied for 1st with six pass breakups and leads a young secondary that has been decimated by injuries since fall camp began. As a freshman, he picked off three Joel Stave passes to help the Wildcats defeat the Badgers.
Northwestern ranks second in the Big Ten in kickoff return average (27.2 yards). The primary return-man for Northwestern has been wide receiver Soloman Vault. He’s proven dangerous, having returned one kick for a touchdown and averaging 28.4 yards per return. The team’s second-leading receiver, Flynn Nagel, has returned 14 punts for 119 yards and a long of 47.
On the kicking end of things, punter Hunter Niswander has been strong for Northwestern. He ranks second in the Big Ten in punting average (42.7 yards) and has a long kick of 62 yards. Junior kicker Jack Mitchell is 6 for 9 on field goals on the season and ranks #4 on the school’s all-time scoring list. His two field goals were the difference in Northwestern’s six-point victory over Wisconsin last season.
Things seem to get more interesting by the week for the Badgers’ special teams. They should have a counter to Vault’s kickoff return success – they are the best in the Big Ten at kick coverage. However, they rank dead-last in net punting average. Kicker Andrew Endicott continued his roller-coaster season, as he missed both a field goal and a key extra point last week against Nebraska.