Max Sternberg is a law student at Northwestern and previously covered Wisconsin football for The Daily Cardinal as an undergrad at Wisconsin.
Wisconsin isn’t this good and Northwestern isn’t this bad. As much as we are prone to overreaction, this is not the time to do so. Both teams on the Camp Randall field Saturday afternoon have earned and deserve their place in the top echelon of the Big Ten and the events of a couple hours shouldn’t change that.
Simply put, this was a great matchup for Wisconsin. Northwestern had a tough time playing four quarters of defense against a power back at home against Ohio State and struggled again in Madison after a second straight good start.
On the other end of the ball, Northwestern’s strengths are exactly what Wisconsin is confident it can take away. The Wildcats do not pose much of a deep threat and prefer to use their athleticism and discipline to make defenses pay for not stick to their assignments. Wisconsin’s corps of veteran linebackers are as good as any in the nation at keeping athletic quarterbacks contained and did just that to Northwestern’s Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian.
But there are teams out there capable of exposing Wisconsin’s weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Ohio State was able to take advantage of the Badgers’ tendency to breakdown in deep coverage and that potential still exists going forward into a fairly weak remaining schedule.
And while the Wildcats struggled against the Badger defense, they will not have to deal with a linebacking corps as talented as UW for a while. Northwestern will be able to settle back into what it does best next week in Evanston against Minnesota and have another opportunity to show what they can do on the road when they travel to Iowa City later in the month. Although an 0-2 start to Big Ten play is a bit of a buzzkill on what had been a fairly well-hyped season, it by no means signals the end of the Wildcats’ hopes at reaching a Rose Bowl game for the first time since 1996.
On the other side of the ball, Northwestern exposed the Badgers’ inability to take care of the ball on a consistent basis with Joel Stave at the helm. Despite carrying a 21-6 lead into the half, UW turned the ball over three times, killing two drives into NU territory and allowing the Wildcats to maintain a pulse in what would have otherwise been a game decided well before the halftime buzzer. This lack of discipline will keep the Badgers in danger of a letdown game for the rest of a season that should be chalk full of relatively stress-free wins.
Other than having each lost tight games to Ohio State prior to matching up on Saturday, Wisconsin and Northwestern had very little in common. Both are good teams and yet in very different ways. All we found out Saturday was that the matchup was destined to go the way of the Badgers.
Both Northwestern and Wisconsin have plenty of season left to be played. Though the Badgers would need plenty of help from Buckeye opponents, Northwestern still controls much of its own destiny, even at two losses. None of its competitors in the Legends division figure to run the table and once the Cats get through consecutive road dates at Iowa and Nebraska, they have home dates with Michigan and Michigan State which could provide plenty of opportunity to make up the ground lost since last Saturday afternoon.
Certainly Northwestern is not yet where it wants to be as a program. But two losses to two very good opponents doesn’t mean they aren’t still on the right track.