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Northwestern vs. Wisconsin: What to know about the Wildcats

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Inside NU catches us up with Northwestern.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Familiar rivals face off at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday morning, as the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to Camp Randall Stadium to start conference play.

Wisconsin (3–0) and Northwestern (2–1) both come in off bye weeks, and it should be intriguing to see how the extra time has helped the two programs on the field.

Northwestern boasts a one-two tandem in the backfield of running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson, but injuries to its secondary could leave it susceptible to the passing game if it sells out against Wisconsin’s rushing attack.

To help us breakdown the Wildcats, Inside NU’s Will Ragatz joined B5Q for a little Q&A.

What are the expectations for Northwestern this year, even with the loss at Duke and the tough start against Nevada?

Northwestern fans aren’t entirely sure what to expect right now. The team, which we all expected to compete in the Big Ten West coming into the year, has heavily underperformed in two of its three games, as you mention. The first half of the season-opening win over Nevada showed off some concerning signs, but the Wildcats did rally for an impressive 24–3 second-half performance in that game, though, so many chalked it up to a sluggish start. We were simply glad NU survived, unlike last season when a one-point loss to Badger bowl opponent WMU and a three-point loss to FCS Illinois State (which I am still scarred by) created an 0–2 start.

Then came the Duke game. Northwestern trailed 21–3 after less than 18 minutes and it only got uglier from there. The Blue Devils won the yardage battle 538–191 as dual-threat QB Daniel Jones was basically unstoppable and NU QB Clayton Thorson threw two picks in a 41–17 loss. Most of us were really down on the team after that, understandably. However, there are plenty of reasons for the fanbase not to completely give up on those West title dreams just yet. First of all, Duke might actually be good; they’re 4–0 and on the doorstep of the top 25. Northwestern bounced back with a dominant 49–7 win against Bowling Green two weeks ago, and even though the Falcons are awful, it was a reminder of all the talent these Wildcats still possess. Thorson has been awesome in both home games, Justin Jackson is 108 yards from becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher, and NU has stars at defensive tackle and safety. All it takes is one upset in Madison, and Northwestern could be right in this division race. After playing Penn State at home the week following this game, every other contest is winnable, especially with the Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota, and Michigan State games being played at Ryan Field.

I would say a reasonable expectation right now is a second consecutive 5–4 conference record, but the Cats could conceivably finish Big Ten play anywhere from 2–7 to 7–2.

Seeing the latest depth chart for Northwestern, injuries have hit the Wildcats both possibly in the short term and long term. Where is NU hurting, and how could those injuries affect its chances on Saturday?

Northwestern, for the second straight year, has been hit with a wave of injuries at the cornerback position. Starting CB Keith Watkins II has torn his ACL leading into each of the past two seasons, so he hasn’t been able to play since 2015 and his career is in serious jeopardy. The big news from the last couple weeks is that Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock, who were expected to play important roles after Watkins went down, are both out for the year as well. The Wildcats do have three solid healthy corners now after Trae Williams returned from an Achilles injury, but there is no longer much depth at that position at all and any further injuries would be devastating. Expect No. 1 corner Montre Hartage to line up against Quintez Cephus plenty on Saturday, but Alex Hornibrook has a chance to have a big day against this banged-up secondary.

Electric kick returner Solomon Vault and defensive tackle Jake Saunders are also out for the year with preseason injuries. On the offense, wide receiver Jalen Brown, a grad transfer from Oregon, went down with what looked like a serious injury against Bowling Green. He hadn’t done much on the field, but is a former four-star recruit and had a chance to grow into a deep threat for Thorson. We’ll see if anything else comes out in the Thursday evening injury report, but it’s mainly been the cornerback position that’s been hurt so far.

Wisconsin has seen a lot of Justin Jackson in recent years. How has the talented running back looked this year, and who are the keys to Northwestern’s success on offense with Thorson?

It’s been a solid start to the season for the always-reliable Jackson, although his numbers are a bit down because the entire offense put up a clunker against Duke. He ran just seven times for 18 yards in that game, which is inexcusable. He’s gone over 100 yards in each of the two wins, and has nine catches for 87 yards out of the backfield so far. Jackson can thrive as long as the offensive line is doing at least a decent job, because as Badger fans may know, he is incredibly shifty and possesses elite vision. The play of the line is really the key to the entire offense having success. It’s a unit that has definitely looked better this season, but we have yet to see how it will hold up against Big Ten defensive fronts. I wouldn’t necessarily consider the offensive line a weakness at this point, but it could quickly become one. If that group can give Thorson time in the pocket, he is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the conference. His accuracy, arm strength, and decision-making have been fantastic in both wins, and he’s become a true leader of this team.

One of the more exciting things about the non-conference slate was the emergence of true sophomore Bennett Skowronek as the No. 1 receiver. At 6’4, Skowronek is a big target who has clearly developed a strong rapport with Thorson. He caught eight balls for 123 yards against Nevada and added three catches for 86 yards and two touchdowns against Bowling Green. With Flynn Nagel and Macan Wilson, Northwestern has a strong trio of receivers. Oh, and superback Garrett Dickerson (yes, we call tight ends superbacks) is an awesome blocker who had a career day as a receiver with 150 yards the last time out.

Badgers fans know the name of Mike Hankwitz. What has his defense done well so far this season, and where are some areas of concern?

Coach Hank’s defense has had to deal with several key losses, and has struggled so far as a result. I already talked a little bit about the cornerback position, but losing middle linebacker Anthony Walker, Jr., and top pass-rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo to the NFL Draft has hurt as well. Opponents, even the non-Duke ones, have been able to move the ball through the air, mainly because Northwestern hasn’t generated any kind of pass rush this season. The Wildcats had just one sack in the first two games before adding three against a woeful Bowling Green line. That makes it awfully hard for NU’s secondary, led by great safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, to hold up in coverage. Getting some kind of pass rush from a young group of defensive ends would be huge against Wisconsin. Northwestern has only turned opponents over five times so far, which is another area of concern.

The run D has actually been pretty solid. Defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster is a beast in the middle and the linebackers, led by Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall, are a solid unit. Of course, the Badgers’ RBs are a whole different story, but I’m more worried about defending the pass. The Wildcats have struggled mightily with mobile quarterbacks over the last couple years, but Hornibrook doesn’t appear to present any kind of threat in that area.

Yes, there has to be a question on specialists (#SpecialistsArePeopleToo). How has the third phase of the game looked for Northwestern early on?

This would be a really good special teams group if it had everyone healthy. As I mentioned earlier, Northwestern is without its normal kickoff returner this year. Vault has three career touchdown returns and an average of over 25 yards per return. Without him, the Wildcats are 13th in the conference with a dreadful 16.6 average, so starting field position after opponents’ scores has been a problem. The good news is that Hunter Niswander is the best punter in the Big Ten, averaging almost 50 yards per punt. Pat Fitzgerald has turned to a true freshman in Charlie Kuhbander at kicker, and he is just 2-for-3 on attempts but has made all 13 extra points.

What are your keys to the game, and your prediction for the early Saturday game?

For Northwestern’s defense, the biggest key can’t be overemphasized: putting some sort of consistent pressure on Hornibrook, especially on third down. Wisconsin is converting 57 percent of its third downs, and if Hornibrook has all day to throw, that figure might even go up. Joe Gaziano and the Wildcats have to be able to force him into some difficult throws and hope he makes a mistake. Obviously, that becomes easier on 3rd-and-long, so stopping the run on early downs will be important (and extremely difficult). On offense, I don’t see a scenario where the game ends in a win and Jackson isn't NU’s new all-time leading rusher. He’ll need to get at least the required 108 yards so the Wildcats don’t become one-dimensional, which is when Thorson tends to struggle.

Some individual match-ups when Wisconsin has the ball I’m looking at are Cephus vs. Hartage, Troy Fumagalli vs. Queiro or whoever else is covering him, and Gaziano vs. RT David Edwards. On the other side, focus on Skowronek vs. Derrick Tindal/Nick Nelson and Jackson against all of Wisconsin’s linebackers.

Ultimately, I think Wisconsin is simply the better team. Northwestern will hang around for a while, but the Badgers’ offense will be too much in a 34–24 victory. My grandpa is a season-ticker holder, so I’ve sat in the Camp Randall seats many times, but I’m excited to check out the press box for the first time and hopefully see a crazy upset.