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Wisconsin football: keys to victory at Northwestern

What do the Badgers need to do to take the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West?

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend the writing was on the wall to set up a huge Saturday in the Big Ten conference. If Wisconsin could win on the road against Michigan, and Northwestern could put away Purdue, the Big Ten West division would have a face off the following weekend with huge implications.

Well, that all happened and now the drivers seat for both divisions (No. 3 Ohio State plays No. 9 Indiana out east) will be taken on Saturday afternoon. What do the Badgers need to do to be the ones that come out on top? Let’s take a look.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Be dynamic

There are differences in the 2020 versions of No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 19 Northwestern, but fundamentally they are the same programs that they have been for quite a long time. The Badgers and Wildcats are built on strong defense and a power run game year in and year out.

It’s what Paul Chryst and Pat Fitzgerald want to do to the deepest parts of their core. Each sideline knows that. However, I think in 2020 Chryst needs to continue to be dynamic and not settle for the same old same old against this stingy Wildcat team.

So far this season the Badgers have been pretty aggressive in their play calling and approach to the game as a whole. That will be important in this contest as well. In 2019, the Badgers were ultra conservative and won an ugly game, but it allowed a bad Northwestern team to hang around much too long.

If Wisconsin wants to win this they’ll need to come out with a dynamic approach on offense and not rely solely on the interior run game. Guys like Danny Davis III and Chimere Dike will need to get a lot of touches. The jet sweep was lethal a week ago, and if the Badgers can continue to lean on that and play action they should open things up for a run game that has struggled mightily against the Wildcats the last three seasons, averaging just 130 yards or so a game on the ground.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oregon vs Wisconsin Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Win third down

In 2019, Northwestern was one of the worst offensive units in all of college football. The Wildcats ranked No. 126 in scoring offense, No. 126 in passing offense and No. 124 in total offense. The one phase they we’re strong in was the run game, sitting at No. 44. In 2020, things have turned around a bit but have started to regress to the norm. The Wildcats currently rank No. 96 in total offense, No. 54 in rushing offense and No. 102 in passing offense. The numbers are better and so are the wins. Still though, they aren’t lighting the world on fire, so what’s been key for them? Third down.

On offense Northwestern is converting third downs at a clip of 46%. In turn, they rank No. 29 in the country in third down conversion percentage and No. 17 in average time of possession. The Wildcats don’t do anything overly great on the offensive side of the football, but they do it just good enough to keep drives alive and sustained.

On defense the same mantra is there. The Wildcats are No. 14 in third down conversion percentage, allowing opponents to convert just 29% of the time. Overall, they do really well on third down. For the Badgers, though, they’ve done better in a smaller sample size. The Badgers rank No. 3 in third down conversion percentage offensively and No. 6 defensively. Whoever wins more on third down is winning this football game.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Start fast and strong

If there is one opponent that makes me worried for a trap game it’s almost always Northwestern. That worry gets compounded when you have to go play at Ryan Field in Evanston. The Badgers, and many others, have been notorious for coming out and starting slowly and sleepily there.

It’s something the Wildcats have perfected. They lull you to sleep and the next thing you know its late third quarter and Pat Fitzgerald has that look on his face that he has you where he wants you. It’s something the Badgers will need to avoid this time around.

Offensively the Badgers have struggled in general against Northwestern averaging just 21.6 points per game in the Paul Chryst era against them. That is even worse at Ryan Field, as Wisconsin is averaging just 17.3 points per game in their last three trips (2014 was coached by Barry Alvarez). To win this game the Badgers need to come out and play with their hair on fire. “Bring your own juice” has been the mantra all season, and they’ll need to bring even more to Evanston this time around. It’s been a house of horrors for Wisconsin of late, and if they want to take control of the West division they’ll have to avoid that slow start this trip.