The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (3-0 overall, 1-0 B1G), fresh off a thunderous beatdown of the No. 20 Michigan Wolverines, now turn their attention to another Big Ten foe. The Northwestern Wildcats (1-2 overall, 0-1 B1G) have had their usual September struggles this season, but there are questions this time about whether or not Pat Fitzgerald will be able to turn it around.
NU has looked anemic on offense in losses at Stanford to open the season and at home against No. 25 Michigan State last week (scoring a combined 17 points), with an “ok” performance sandwiched in between, in their lone win, against UNLV.
So, what should we expect when Northwestern comes to town? Well, it won’t be easy. The Wildcats have won three of the last five match ups against the Badgers, with Wisconsin favored in each one.
Noah Coffman of our SB Nation B1G cousins Inside NU is here to give us the lowdown on what to expect when Chicago’s* B1G Team comes to Madison.
1) Who are the key Northwestern players to look out for on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball?
Offensively, the players to watch (besides the obvious in Hunter Johnson) are Bennett Skowronek and Isaiah Bowser. Skowronek, a senior receiver, stands 6’4” and is Northwestern’s most consistent outside option. He can make plays on 50/50 balls, get catches in traffic, and has shown a propensity for clutchness with his incredible game-winning touchdown to seal the West division last year against Iowa. The ‘Cats need him to get going early, especially with Wisconsin’s safety situation.
Bowser, meanwhile, will continue to be the primary ballcarrier. He ran through the Badgers last year to the tune of 117 yards and a touchdown, and while the ‘Cats now have more viable options, the powerful true sophomore will continue to be the bell-cow back.
Defensively, Joe Gaziano and Greg Newsome II will be crucial. Gaziano, the team’s top pass rusher, will need to continue to exist in the nightmares of Big Ten quarterbacks for the Wildcats to find success defensively. If the big defensive end, also a linchpin of Northwestern’s run defense, can get after Jack Coan, it could be a long day for Wisconsin in the passing game.
Newsome, meanwhile, though he is just a sophomore, is the Wildcats’ best cover corner. Last week, with his typical partner, Trae Williams, out (his status for Saturday is unknown as of now) Michigan State went after backup AJ Hampton. If NU needs to help out the other side of the field once more, Newsome, a true sophomore, will have to consistently lock down his man.
2) What sort of schemes is Northwestern running on offense and defense this year?
The Wildcats have had largely the same offensive scheme for ten years, and after handing Hunter Johnson the keys, it has undergone only minor changes. Longtime OC Mick McCall’s spread setup includes primarily shotgun formations, typically featuring nearly exclusively zone runs and a largely pin-and-pull scheme between the 20s. With Johnson at the helm, the QB run is more of a factor, with the Wildcats implementing the read option and various QB keepers more fully than in years past.
In the passing game, meanwhile, McCall tends to keep it simple. NU, who is a base 11 personnel team, runs plenty of variations on mesh and short flood routes, trying to give their quarterbacks easier completions.
Defensively, Northwestern has also been pretty consistent over the years. DC Mike Hankwitz is a 4-3 guy. The Wildcats rotate their front four often, and though they go to the nickel package relatively frequently, as most groups do, you rarely ever see them in a dime set up. They like to keep linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher on the field pretty much at all times, along with some combination of four down linemen.
3) Who are you worried about on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball for the Badgers?
Besides the existential dread that accompanies Jonathan Taylor’s name (even if the ‘Cats have been able to limit him pretty effectively in years past), Quintez Cephus really worries me on the offensive side of things. If Coan has truly improved as much as it seems like he has, Cephus’ big-play potential and overall pass-catching consistency won’t be good for a struggling Wildcat secondary.
On the other side of things, any Wisconsin linebacking corps is typically concerning. Specifically, Zack Baun just seems like a walking havoc play. Northwestern’s offensive line, unsurprisingly, looked overmatched against Michigan State last week, especially in the run game. Bain should be able to take advantage of a rebuilding group’s struggles to stay in the backfield all day long.
4) How are Northwestern fans feeling after a 1-2 start to the season? Is there concern about the season being over before it really starts with a tough portion of the schedule upcoming?
Pat Fitzgerald has proven to be such a wizard at pulling a solid season from a tough start in past years that it’s tough to call the season over by any stretch, but the schedule issue is a real one. If they can just take one of these next three games, though (specifically at Nebraska, especially between killer match ups at Camp Randall and hosting Ohio State), fans will feel that the season is salvageable.
Given how much better the back stretch of the schedule looks, a bowl game is by no means even close to out of the question, though it’s difficult to see this group really competing for the Big Ten West as things stand now.
5) What is the confidence level in Hunter Johnson and the offense? What can NU do to improve on finishing drives and moving the ball against a good Wisconsin defense?
It isn’t particularly high. Johnson has completed fewer than half of his passes over the first three games, his receivers have battled drops, the o-line hasn’t yet put it altogether, and the group as a whole has been largely unable to finish drives as is. If this team wants to get going against am absolutely stifling defense like Wisconsin’s they need to actually stretch the field by playing to Johnson’s strength and dialing up deep shots, which they did not do at all last week.
Also, if they do manage to actually sustain a drive or two, which is a distinct possibility, the ball must be taken care of in the red zone. The Wildcats have scored on only 7 of 11 such opportunities this season, and this group just doesn’t have enough of a margin of error to make mistakes really anywhere on the field, but especially in that area.
6) What are your predictions for the final score and players of the game, on either team?
Wisconsin’s gonna take this one. I’ll be generous and say that the Wildcats cover.
Final: 26-13 Badgers.
Wisconsin Players of the Game: Baun/Taylor.
Northwestern Players of the Game: Gaziano/Skowronek.