Northwestern will look to rebound from its first loss of the season this Saturday against Wisconsin. Let’s take a look at which team has the edge in each situation of the game.
When Wisconsin has the ball
Wisconsin’s game plan is not a secret: run, run, and run again. Normally a plan that obvious would seem easy to disrupt, but the Badgers boast the No. 8, No. 31 and No. 77 running backs in the country in rushing yards per game. Other teams have known the plan, and only Ohio State has been able to curtail it, holding them to a season low—by far—104 yards rushing. Ohio State’s defensive linemen were able to make their way into the backfield on several occasions, and the linebackers backed them up with 23 tackles. Even though Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave threw for 295 yards in the game, the Buckeyes won because they were able to stop the running backs.
So Northwestern has the blueprint for beating Wisconsin, but do they have the personnel? Part of the Badgers’ success in the running game is the play of their massive offensive line—the smallest lineman, right guard Kyle Costigan, weighs in at a hefty 315 pounds. But the line isn’t just dead weight; these big men are surprisingly mobile. Northwestern’s defensive line has been off-and-on this season, and this is probably the best offensive line they will face all year. The Wildcat’s 48th-ranked rush defense will have their hands full. The one advantage for NU is their propensity to cause turnovers, but Wisconsin running backs have only lost one fumble this season. If NU can keep the Badgers under 30 points, it should be considered a good day for the defense.
When Northwestern has the ball
Wisconsin generally plays a bend-but-don’t-break style defense, giving up a lot of yards but not a lot of points. However, Ohio State found a way to break them using a lot of play action to pull the linebackers in. Miller then rattled off four passing touchdowns. NU could use a similar approach, but reversed, using the option to make the linebackers sit back and then giving the ball to Venric Mark or letting Kain Colter use his mobility.
Wisconsin’s secondary isn’t particularly fast or aggressive, so if the Wildcats can find a way to get Tony Jones or Christian Jones in some single coverage formations, they should be able to get separation downfield.
Wisconsin has a decent kick and punt returner in Kenzel Doe but he has been out with a hamstring injury the last two games, so Wisconsin is rotating players into those positions. On kick returns, NU has averaged about 23 yard per return, while Wisconsin gives up about 22 yards per return. Wisconsin averages about 22 yards per kick return while NU gives up about 18. Basically the differences in the return teams are negligible and neither has an edge, unless Northwestern starts putting Venric Mark back on kick returns. They might be hesitant to risk having him injured again, but he does have one kick return this year: a 38-yard return in the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game.
Northwestern has the slight edge in the kicking game. Jeff Budzien has missed twice this year, but Wisconsin’s kicker, Kyle French, has missed twice in fewer attempts and has also missed an extra point.