The No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers (2-0) continue their road trip with a game in Evanston, Ill. against the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats (4-0) on Saturday afternoon. With that record, we may be in the midst of a dreaded Good Northwestern Year that defies all logic or reason.
To get some answers about Wisconsin’s frustrating rivals to the south we bothered Lia Assimakopoulos of Inside NU and asked her to give us some damn insight on the Northwestern Wildcats.
1) Going by Bill C.’s SP+ rankings, 4-0 Northwestern is ranked No. 32 behind 1-3 Michigan (No. 27) and 0-4 Penn State (No. 16). NU’s last three wins have been by one score. Are the Wildcats a team that’s winning on smoke and mirrors or is this your classic Good Northwestern team that just knows how to win close games?
Despite the SP+ rankings, I really do believe this Northwestern team is a strong team that knows how to win in close games rather than one that’s getting lucky. There is a lot of similarities between this squad and the 2018 Big Ten West Championship team, and as Pat Fitzgerald said in a press conference after the Iowa win, you have to pull out close wins to have a special season. Northwestern has done exactly that.
First, the Maryland win was a blowout and seems more impressive week-by-week as the Terrapins take down more competitive teams in the conference. The Iowa win was a hard-fought battle as it always is, but Northwestern showed resilience and overcame a 17-point deficit to come away with a win –– nobody can say that was just luck. As for the Nebraska and Purdue games, while they were close in score, it felt that the Wildcats controlled the momentum of the game for the most part. For Nebraska, they dominated in the second half and for Purdue, they jumped out to an early enough lead that a late surge from Zander Horvath wasn’t enough to overcome an early deficit for the Boilermakers.
At the end of the day, Northwestern has come away with close victories but has yet to put together a complete matchup. The defense is consistent, but has shown signs of weakness in tackling and quarterback pressure. The offense is still finding its rhythm but has shown it can win in many ways, and special teams has been all or nothing. The ‘Cats are much stronger this year without a doubt, but to take down Wisconsin, they need to be close to perfect.
2) Much like any Wisconsin point guard from the last two decades, it seems like MLB Paddy Fisher has been in Evanston since Barack Obama was running for president. Besides him, who are two other players to watch out for on the Cats dominant defense?
Fisher has been the heart and soul of the linebacking crew for years now and has terrorized offenses since he first set foot on campus, but he certainly doesn’t do it alone. The secondary has taken great strides this year with redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph stepping into a starting role and being a pleasant surprise for the NU defense. He is the only Wildcat with multiple interceptions this year — he charted two against Iowa and one against Nebraska — and he leads the secondary in tackles, trailing only the three starting linebackers.
Speaking of the linebackers, another player to watch out for is Chris Bergin. The senior linebacker has been consistent throughout his time in Evanston, working alongside Fisher and Blake Gallagher, but he has really come into his own this season. He now leads the team with tackles and recorded a crucial interception against Nebraska. He’s been a secret weapon on the defense and has been probably the most consistent player on that side of the ball this year.
3) What does QB Peyton Ramsey bring to the table that makes the offense better and what does Mike Bajakian do differently than He Who Shall Not Be Named at offensive coordinator?
Peyton Ramsey is not a flashy, big-time playmaker like many other quarterbacks in the conference, but he gets the job done and brings the consistency and leadership that Northwestern lacked under center last season. His football IQ and mentality when he plays has benefited the offense as a whole and kept them calm even when it seems like the momentum is starting to shift in favor of their opponent.
Against Purdue, Ramsey threw an interception at the end of the first half, setting up a Purdue touchdown. Instead of beating down on himself and getting in his head, he came down the field and went 7-for-7 for a 62-yard touchdown drive to regain the lead. His poise and resilience is different than anything Northwestern has seen in recent years, and the entire offense has said his experience and leadership is what carries them to succeed in these close matchups.
Bajakian’s offense has brought a completely new look for Northwestern. Across four games, we have seen a variety of styles from him — some emphasizing the run and others the pass. Additionally, the role of the tight end has been reimagined as John Raine and Charlie Mangieri have become much more critical players in the offense’s success. But overall, he has shown he is adaptable, something we hadn’t seen much in the past. While the run game was dominant in the first three matchups, it struggled against Purdue, so Ramsey and the wide receivers had to step up. Ultimately, when one aspect of the offense is struggling, Bajakian has shown he can make effective adjustments and utilize all his weapons.
4) What worries you about Wisconsin on offense and defense this year?
First and foremost, Graham Mertz has been very impressive in his first two games and will be by far the most skilled quarterback Northwestern has faced. He will prove to be a significant challenge for the NU defense and secondary in particular. Additionally, one of Northwestern’s weaker areas this year has been the pass rush, so going up against a strong Wisconsin offensive line and getting to Mertz will be a focus for Northwestern and another uphill battle.
Lastly, Wisconsin’s defense is always solid and the Badger linebackers are another group to watch out for for Northwestern. Northwestern has won most of its games this season on the ground, but its rushers had a tough go against Purdue and will likely find similar challenges against Wisconsin this weekend.
5) Let’s get a game prediction and your MVP for Northwestern.
I expect Northwestern will give Wisconsin a run for its money and its defense will keep things close throughout, but the Badgers’ caliber of play will be too much for the Wildcats to handle in the end.
Wide receiver Kyric McGowan will lead the way for Northwestern on offense both in the run game and passing game as well as on special teams. Wisconsin, 27-21.