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

Our chat with Inside NU

Northwestern v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Another Big Ten West division match-up with major implications takes place on Saturday morning in Evanston, as the No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers take on the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field.

Northwestern (4–3, 4–1 Big Ten) comes off an unimpressive 18–15 win against Rutgers, one where the offense failed to get over 300 yards but the defense did its part again in only allowing 188 yards to the Scarlet Knights.

How has Pat Fitzgerald’s squad looked so far through seven games? B5Q spoke with Inside NU’s Caleb Friedman to give us the scoop on who and what to watch for on Saturday.

So, what happened against Rutgers? Is it an indication of how this season has gone overall for Northwestern?

Well, Northwestern’s defense played well against Rutgers, but the offense really struggled. Quarterback Clayton Thorson missed a lot of throws, and the running game was decent but not explosive. There was just no rhythm or explosiveness all day for the offense.

Northwestern has been so inconsistent all season that it’s hard to say the Rutgers game was a microcosm of the season. NU’s defense has been pretty good all season, but the offense has struggled, with exceptions against Michigan State, Nebraska, and Purdue. Honestly, it’s tough to predict what NU team will show up week to week.

Injuries: who’s out, who’s coming back, and how could it impact Saturday’s game?

We don’t know for sure, but it’s a pretty good bet that starting linebacker Nate Hall, starting cornerback Greg Newsome, and starting kicker Charlie Kuhbander will all miss the game. They’ve missed the past few games each and weren’t listed on this week’s two-deep. Hall is the biggest loss of the three—he’s a really athletic outside linebacker that creates splash plays and shoots into the backfield well. Backup kicker Drew Luckenbaugh has been solid, but he probably doesn’t have quite the same range as Kuhbander.

Northwestern is a top-20 team in terms of passing the ball (296.3 yards per game) but 127th in rushing it (78.1). Jeremy Larkin still leads the team in rushing despite retiring from football earlier this season. Is the seemingly one-dimensional look of the offense due to someone not replacing Larkin’s production, or as it seems based on the season stats, that Clayton Thorson and the offense really succeed through the air?

The offense has elected to mostly pass because there really isn’t a true starting-caliber back on the roster right now. There have been a bunch of players who have looked competent at times, particularly freshman Isaiah Bowser last week in his first extended action, but nobody’s been super consistent, and the offensive line has struggled blocking.

Thorson and the offense have had their moments, especially against Michigan State and in the second half against Nebraska, but there’s been inconsistency there too. Some weeks, Thorson looks like a pro and the offense is efficient and explosive. Some weeks, Thorson misses open receivers left and right, like he did last week against Rutgers, and the offense is totally stagnant.

Again, a mixed bag this season.

The defense boasts Joe Gaziano, Blake Gallagher, and Paddy Fisher. How have they contributed to the success of the defense, and who else should Wisconsin fans look for on Saturday?

Gaziano is one of the Big Ten’s premier pass rushers and defensive linemen, and Gallagher and Fisher are good run defenders who rack up a lot of tackles. The defense has been good against the run for most of the season, though Nebraska and Rutgers had some success. Aside from those three, Montre Hartage is one of the Big Ten’s better corners, and JR Pace has come up with a bunch of big plays at safety.

What are your key match-ups for Saturday’s divisional contest?

I think how Northwestern deals with Jonathan Taylor will be the biggest determinant in this one. If Northwestern slows him down and doesn’t let Wisconsin hold the ball and wear the NU defense down, the Wildcats will have a chance. Making Alex Hornibrook beat the secondary—which he did last season in Madison—is the path to an upset.

The other match-up I’ll watch closely is how Northwestern protects Thorson on passing downs. The line has to hold up, which it hasn’t against good defenses thus far this season. When Thorson has time, he’s usually pretty good. The problem is, he often doesn’t.

Lastly, game predictions—who comes out with an important win that could shape how the Big Ten West sorts out?

I’ll take Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 17. Having watched Northwestern struggle against Rutgers last week, I just can’t pick the Wildcats.