The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers will look to continue their conquest for a Big Ten West division title on Saturday as they will face the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field.
History hasn’t been kind to the Badgers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) in Evanston, where (HAVE YOU HEARD?) they haven’t won against the Wildcats (4-4, 3-2) since 1999. UW will face a talented set of skill players on offense that will keep NU in the game for four quarters.
Here are the three keys to the Badgers’ continuing their path for a Big Ten West division crown.
Contain Justin Jackson and Northwestern rushing attack
Yes, yes, yes. It always starts with containing the run, as in many of these “keys” articles, but it’s especially true against the Wildcats.
Junior running back Justin Jackson needs 132 yards to eclipse 1,000 yards for the third straight season -- and he’s averaging 4.6 yards per carry while finding the end zone six times so far in 2016.
“He’s a great back. He’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and brings the pop, and he’s pretty close to 1,000 [yards] again,” redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said on Wednesday. “He’s done great against us last year, so stopping him is a priority.”
Jackson’s history against Wisconsin isn’t pretty for the Badgers’ defense. He ran for 139 yards and a touchdown last season, with another 162 back in that disappointing 2014 loss in Evanston.
Keep the 5’11, 193-pound back grounded and contained, and Wisconsin can pin their ears in pass rush against quarterback Clayton Thorson and also focus on stopping former walk-on wide receiver Austin Carr.
Carr leads the conference in receptions (58), receiving yards (878) and touchdowns (nine), but if the defense makes Northwestern one-dimensional, Wisconsin’s overachieving secondary has the ability — and most importantly, the confidence — to play well.
Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston
Technically, I guess you could say this is “four keys” if you count the two quarterbacks separately, but Wisconsin needs more from this position. Hornibrook and Houston know it, and it will be worth watching both how head coach Paul Chryst utilizes the two this week.
The interception each by both signal callers really could have doomed the Badgers late last week against the Huskers in their overtime win, and 114 yards passing will not cut it this week. Neither will starting the game with four of their first five offensive drives being three-and-outs.
Northwestern is last in the conference in pass defense, giving up almost 275 yards per game, but they’ve also intercepted seven passes this year. They’ve only allowed 37.2 percent of opponent’s third down conversions, and have allowed around 142 yards per game on the ground.
If Wisconsin can’t get their rushing attack on point, which there have been promising signs in the past three games, both quarterbacks and the passing game need to get on track. They should have some opportunities on Saturday.
Special teams need to be more consistent
Field position and converting on scoring opportunities are key in road games. Wisconsin, with kickoff specialist/punter P.J. Rosowski, leads the conference in kickoff coverage, but UW’s punting is dead last out of the 14 teams (30.8 net yards). Rosowski and true freshman Anthony Lotti will need to be improve and pin the Wildcats back in their own territory. Last week, Nebraska had three drives in the first half alone that started at their 40-yard line or closer. Luckily, Wisconsin’s defense forced interceptions on two of those three drives.
Senior Andrew Endicott has had a rough couple of weeks, going 1-for-3 against Iowa, then missing a potential game-winning 45-yard attempt in the fourth quarter last week against Nebraska. Compounding that, he missed the extra point after running back Dare Ogunbowale’s touchdown in overtime, which could have been disastrous.
Endicott, who’s range looks to be in the 50-55 yard range, will need to right that ship.
This could be a toss up. On paper, it looks like Wisconsin should hold Northwestern and pick up a win — but that darn drought at Ryan Field creeps up. The Wildcats are playing much better in their last four games, and almost upset the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes last week in their 24-20 loss.
However, Wisconsin has the players who step up when injuries surface. Connelly is the stereotypical “glue guy” walk-on story of a player filling in when absolutely needed and not missing a beat. Jacobs fits in the same mold, willing to do absolutely anything for the team (see: three positions in his UW career). With T.J. Watt appearing to play, the Badgers can put up pressure against a Northwestern offensive line that’s been susceptible.
Wisconsin’s running game is coming along, and I think the quarterback “controversy” might actually be good for both signal callers. Both disappointed against Nebraska, and they face a Wildcats defense statistically not great defending the pass. I still think their red zone opportunities will be a mixed bag of not converting those opportunities into touchdowns (six of their 23 red zone scores have been field goals), but I’m predicting Endicott bounces back with three field goals.
The quest for Indianapolis continues, and after Saturday, the Badgers could be in the driver’s seat for the West...as long as they can exorcise those Evanston demons.
Wisconsin 23, Northwestern 21