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Northwestern vs. Wisconsin: Stopping Melvin Gordon, James White, and three questions for NU's defense


Joe Robbins

We already did this thing for Northwestern's offense, now let's flip it!

I have three questions here, but by far the scariest is the first. You can tell this by how many ahhhhhhhh's I put in there. Like I said, I expect there to be points with two teams with offensive strengths playing into the others' weaknesses -- I'm not sure if I'm paraphrasing or if that's a direct quote -- and in this case, that's Wisconsin running the ball and Northwestern possibly not being able to stop that whatsoever. That doesn't make it a typical shootout, since typical shootouts involve tonsa passin', but they can and will put up points that way. It's up to Northwestern to stop them.

Let's think about things!

Can Northwestern do anything to slow Wisconsin's rushing game?

Ahhhh! I'm worried! Ahh! Ahhhhh!

A week after giving up 168 yards to Carlos Hyde and another 68 to Braxton Miller, Northwestern faces another daunting rushing attack: Melvin Gordon, a 6'1, 203-pounder who averaged 10 yards per carry last year in limited attempts behind Montee Ball... and has bumped that up to 10.3 yards per carry as the team's featured back. And then there's James White, who had 1,000 yard as a freshman and hasn't equalled that yet, but is on pace with a career high 6.9 yards per carry thus far in his senior season, as B5Q said, he's "the consummate college back."

I think the good news is that from a scheme perspective, we're dealing with a different beast. What was scary about Ohio State was the threat of either Miller or Hyde being able to run, and plays right up the gut, where Sean McEvilly was not due to injury. What's scary about Wisconsin is runs towards the boundary, especially off of fly sweeps and the like. Joel Stave does not prevent a threat to run, so there are less issues to account for at the same time, although they will run plays with Gordon and White on the field at the same time, sometimes with Gordon split out wide and running end-around.

But the Badgers are also very adept at running into the area where Northwestern is weak: that is to say, right up the middle. Without Sean McEvilly, Northwestern might not be able to stop this, but it also doesn't need to stop this, they just need to make it not so ludicrously effective that it's a touchdown every drive.

How do we control Jared Abbrederis?

The Badgers got 399 yards against Ohio State. 207 of these were Jared Abbrederis receiving yards. Two hundred and seven. Wisconsin has some crazy stats thanks to an awful non-conference schedule, but with Abbrederis, he did this against the Big Ten's best team.

Abbrederis isn't crazy fast, but he's a 6'1 guy who runs great routes, has great hands, makes great plays on the ball, and has the body control you'd expect from a guy who drew accolades as a wrestler and hurdler in high school before walking on to Wisconsin. Joel Stave isn't a great quarterback, but he can toss it up to Abbrederis and he'll catch it.

But as impressive as Abbrederis is, B5Q says over and over again in their posts that nobody else in the receiving corps is doing anything. He has 572 of Wisconsin's 1083 receiving yards and half of their eight touchdowns. The goal for Northwestern's secondary is to stop Abbrederis, and little else. If somebody else beats you, bummer, but it's not what you're worried about.

Stopping him, though, is a problem. Ohio State lined up Bradley Roby, considered a surefire draft pick, on Abbrederis, and he failed over and over again. Northwestern has Nick VanHoose, and since NU chooses to line cornerbacks up on a side, the Badgers might choose to keep their star on Dwight White's side, putting their best up against Northwestern's worst.

The good news is that Northwestern's passing defense looked surprisingly solid against Ohio State. I put a lot of the credit for this on NU's front four for getting pressure on Braxton Miller, but credit goes to the secondary.

Regardless of that pressure, I wouldn't mind NU going all out on stopping Abbrederis -- keeping VanHoose on him instead of on a side, and Ibraheim Campbell playing his side of the field so there are no deep issues. Even then, that might not be enough, especially considering how focused NU is going to have to be on stopping the run.

Can Wisconsin keep Tyler Scott from wreaking havoc?

I already alluded to this, but we really can't say enough about the job Northwestern's pass-rushers have done. Big Ten sack leader Tyler Scott is a damn monster, as evidenced by his strip-sack-recovery last week against Braxton Miller. Another tipped ball led to a pick, thanks to Ifeadi Odenigbo. Braxton Miller rarely had a moment to think. As week as Northwestern is against the run, their defensive line puts the opposing quarterback in trouble.

Normally Wisconsin has an obscenely stout offensive line, and although there have been questions about this year's crew due to some graduations, they've only allowed five sacks in five games.

The question is whether or not Scott and crew can overpower that and prevent Stave from having enough time to find Abbrederis, and quite frankly, I'm not sure it's a question Wisconsin wants to answer. They can run and run and run and run and run and not have to find out whether Tyler Scott gets to the quarterback.

If Wisconsin drops back a lot, Northwestern has to take advantage. Turnovers have been this team's boon through two seasons, and this year, the force causing those turnovers is the front. It seems like Northwestern can count on that production week-in week-out, but they need the opposition to give them opportunities.

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