After winning two straight key B1G West games versus the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 6-2 (3-2) Wisconsin Badgers will attempt to take down another obstacle on Saturday, when they face the 4-4 (3-2) Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston.
With a win against Northwestern and also with a loss by Nebraska against Ohio State at Columbus, the Badgers will be in the driver’s seat in terms of being the favorite to win the B1G West. The Badgers would then hold tie-breakers over Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern.
There is also another team in the mix for the B1G West. That would be the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who like Wisconsin is 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten. The Badgers, who are ranked No. 8 in both polls as well as in the playoff rankings, will host Minnesota in the final game of the season at Camp Randall on November 26.
That game will not only be for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but a lot more could be at stake for the Badgers.
That would be a chance to play in the B1G Championship Game versus either Ohio State or Michigan.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Beating the Wildcats in Evanston will not be easy. The Badgers haven’t won there since 1999. Northwestern always plays Wisconsin tough it seems.
The Wildcats got off to a slow start this season, which included a loss to Illinois State at Ryan Field in Evanston, but it looks as if the ship has been righted under the leadership of head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Northwestern won three straight games against Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana, before losing narrowly to Ohio State on the road last Saturday.
Looking at Northwestern statistically, the Wildcats wouldn’t appear to be much of a threat to the Badgers. After all, Northwestern is ranked just 88th in total offense in the FBS, while being ranked just 73rd in total defense.
But you better not sleep on the Wildcats, especially when quarterback Clayton Thorson has the ball. Thorson has thrown 15 touchdown passes versus six interceptions for 1,942 yards.
Thorson has also run for 130 yards and four touchdowns. But the big running threat for Northwestern is Justin Jackson, who has run for 868 yards and six scores.
Austin Carr is the big receiving threat for the Wildcats, as he has 58 catches for 878 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Wildcats will be facing a very good Wisconsin defense. The Badgers are ranked 10th in the FBS in total defense, third in scoring defense, 12th in rushing defense and 23rd in passing yards allowed.
The defense of the Badgers is led by their talented set of linebackers, which lost inside linebacker Jack Cichy for the season a couple of weeks back due to a pectoral muscle tear. Cichy was having a fantastic season and has been named as a Butkus Award semi-finalist.
Fortunately for the Badgers, the team has a lot of depth at the linebacker position. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt leads the Badgers with seven sacks. Watt injured his shoulder against Nebraska last Saturday, but is not on the injury list released by Wisconsin on Thursday.
The offense of the Badgers is scuffling a bit at the quarterback position, as both Alex Hornibrook (6-7-948) and Bart Houston (3-3-629) are getting snaps each game. Head coach Paul Chryst has opted to start Hornibrook against Northwestern after having Houston finish the overtime win last week against Nebraska.
The running game is not scuffling however. Corey Clement has rushed for 699 yards this season and has scored six touchdowns. Clement has rushed for 380 yards in the past three games versus Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska.
Dare Ogunbowale has also been very effective toting the rock, as he has rushed for 338 yards and two scores. That includes rushing for 120 yards and the game-winning score against Nebraska last week.
The three big receiving threats for the Badgers are Troy Fumagalli (29-351-1), Jazz Peavy (27-408-3) and Robert Wheelwright (25-353-1).
With this big game looming in the B1g West, it’s always a pleasure to gain some insight from NFL scout Chris Landry.
I wasn’t able to speak with Landry like I normally do each week, but I did check out his preview of the Wisconsin-Northwestern game on his great website.
Here is Landry’s take on the game:
Northwestern has been a thorn in the Wisconsin side over the last two years.
The Badgers turned it over five times in last year’s 13-7 loss – despite badly outplaying the Wildcats – and gave it away four times in 2014 in another game they should’ve had.
In 2010, Wisconsin slipped by Northwestern 70-23 thanks to seven takeaways. The two didn’t play again until 2013. In the last three meetings, the Badgers are a ridiculous -11 in turnover margin. This year’s Bucky team can’t misfire on its opportunities and get away with them against these Wildcats.
Northwestern has played really, really well over the last month, going on a three-game winning streak before pushing Ohio State in Columbus.
The team isn’t getting hit with bad penalties, it’s moving the chains just fine, the special teams have been strong, and it’s not turning the ball over in bunches. However, what it’s not doing is scoring enough when it gets its chances in the red zone.
The Badgers couldn’t put away Ohio State, struggled to get through the Iowa game, and gave Nebraska every opportunity to stay alive. Over the last three games, missed kicks and failed drives have been a major problem for a team that doesn’t explode offensively.
The two defenses have been terrific, and now the improved Wildcat run defense has to stop a boosted Wisconsin running game that found the fire again after sputtering over the first half of the season.
But the defense is banged up with the linebacking corps losing Jack Cichy for the season and with T.J. Watt’s shoulder among other issues for a group that keeps on producing, but it losing bodies left and right. That’ll be a problem against an efficient Northwestern offense that’s starting to roll thanks to QB Clayton Thorson.
Can the 1-2 punch of Thorson and RB Justin Jackson be enough to get past a Badger team that might be this win away from rolling through the rest of the Big Ten schedule?
Wisconsin won’t have the big turnover problems this time around, but issues with the kicking game will prove costly. Northwestern will hang around for a full four quarters, but unlike the last two seasons, it won’t find a way to pull it off. It won’t be pretty, but the Badgers will survive and advance.
——————————-Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 21—————