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Wisconsin football: key matchup to watch vs. Northwestern

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A look at one key matchup that could be critical for the Badgers against Northwestern.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Every college football Saturday is exciting as teams look for matchups to exploit in what traditionally is the game within the game for coaches and players alike.

This year we at B5Q will dive into one pivotal matchup to keep an eye on as the Wisconsin Badgers work their way through their non-conference and Big Ten portions of their 2021 football schedule.

While all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, there are normally a few specific matchups that can make or break a game for a particular side. This weekly feature will highlight one of those matchups in greater detail as we preview the upcoming weekend.

This week we will focus on the passing game as Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz and the passing game square off against Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph and the rest of the Wildcat secondary this weekend.

The case for Brandon Joseph

Teams have absolutely gashed Northwestern in the run game, where they rank No. 125 in the country in rushing defense. Because of this, the Wildcats will likely look to pack the box in order to slow down Wisconsin’s run-heavy attack which will put added pressure on Northwestern’s secondary.

Nebraska v Northwestern
Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph has eight career interceptions in 17 games the past two seasons.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Fortunately for Northwestern, the strength of their defense is their defensive backfield. The player to specifically watch in that group is safety Brandon Joseph who is an All-Big Ten performer.

Joseph is a ball-hawking safety that has a knack for making plays. In a shortened 2020 season, he led the entire FBS with six interceptions, and through nine games of 2021, he has added two more. Northwestern likes to use him all over the field and he is capable of sticking with players one-on-one in coverage as well.

Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz has thrown eight interceptions this season, and multiple INTs have come while targeting tight end Jake Ferguson, who Joseph will probably be responsible for at times on Saturday.

If, and this is a BIG IF, Northwestern can slow the Wisconsin run game down, Joseph could have some chances on inside breaking routes in the throwing game.

The case for Graham Mertz

After a rough start to the season, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz and the entire offense have settled in a bit. The sophomore signal-caller is coming off his best performance of the season against Rutgers where he threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

Wisconsin v Rutgers
Graham Mertz has played much better the past four weeks for the Badgers.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Interceptions, and turnovers in general, have been a weak point for Mertz this season, but the past four weeks he has only thrown one interception. There has been definitive progress in that area, which has improved the complexion of the offense.

Last week, Mertz and the Wisconsin passing game thrived on play-action and inside breaking routes over the middle (slants and digs for the most part). I would expect that to continue this week as well to take advantage of Northwestern sucking up to stop the run, which means that Mertz will need to be careful with Brandon Joseph roaming the middle of the field.

I fully imagine that the Badgers will be able to rely on their run game to move the ball against Northwestern, but that does not mean that Mertz will not have opportunities in play action. The Wildcats are usually a pest for the Badgers, so turnovers and decision-making will be very important for Mertz this weekend.