After three straight narrow victories, Northwestern has moved to 8-2 on the season and reasserted itself back into the national spotlight heading into the last two weeks of the regular season. Now, the Wildcats face one of their most daunting challenges of the season as they travel to Madison to take on the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium, a place they have struggled immensely at over the last decade and a half. The Wildcats have been outscored by the Badgers 170-50 in their last four games at Camp Randall and are currently 11 point underdogs heading into Saturday's game. In fact, prior to the start of the season, the InsideNU staff ranked this game as Northwestern's least winnable game on the schedule. Since then, however, expectations have shifted, and with both teams currently sitting at 8-2 and behind Iowa in the Big Ten West standings, the winner of Saturday's matchup will vault into the discussion for a potential New Year's six bowl appearance, while the loser will fall into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten with just one game left to play.
With so much on the line heading into Saturday, here are three things to know about the Badgers:
1. Wisconsin's defense is legit
Big Ten Power Rankings
Big Ten Power Rankings
2. Injuries have plagued the Badgers
Injuries have been a major issue for Wisconsin all season, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Three weeks ago the Badgers lost their junior center Dan Voltz to a season-ending knee injury and junior receiver Robert Wheelwright for an extended period of time due to a leg injury. Both were major losses for this Wisconsin offense as Wheelwright led the team with four receiving touchdowns while Voltz was one of just two returning starters on the offensive line. The losses to both players have tested the Badgers depth and forced other inexperienced players to step up their games and embrace new roles on the team. Three freshmen offensive linemen are listed as starters on Wisconsin's depth chart for this week while the safety McEvoy is also listed as a first-team wide receiver.
3. This is not your typical Wisconsin offense
In the past, we've seen the Badgers live and die running the football. Year in and year out, stellar running backs such as Brian Calhoun, P.J. Hill, John Clay, Montee Ball, James White and most recently Gordon all have success rushing for the Badgers. In fact, the Badgers have had at least one running back (all mentioned in the previous sentence) rush for at least 1,000 yards since 2005, the longest active streak in college football. This year, that steak could be in jeopardy, as aforementioned injuries have decimated the Badgers' offense and led to changes on the offensive line as well as the starting running back position. Junior Dare Ogunbowale, who initially walked on to the team as a cornerback, currently leads the team with 612 rushing yards and six touchdowns, but his production is expected to go down upon the return of Clement. Furthermore, this season the Badgers have seen their offense shift from a run-heavy style to a more pass reliant attack.
Wisconsin's passing offense is currently ranked 35th in S&P+ rankings, while its rushing offense currently sits at No. 75. The Badgers have throwing the ball significantly more than they did last season, as they attempted a total of 322 passes (averaging 23 attempts per game) in 2014 and this year after 10 games they've already eclipsed that number, attempting 336 passes (33.6 attempts per game). This shift in offensive style has most affected the play of senior quarterback Joel Stave. Stave possesses great size and and exceptional arm strength; he's also shown the ability this season to stay in the pocket and makes throws despite facing the blitz. Similar to previous years, Stave has struggled turning the ball over, (he has eight interceptions to go along with his 10 passing touchdowns this season), which was most notable in the Badgers' 10-6 loss to Iowa in which Stave tossed two interceptions and also fumbled twice, including a crucial muffed fourth quarter exchange on the goal line that could've given the Badgers the lead.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Stave has had to face this year is the lack of depth at the receiver position. Since the injury to Wheelwright, senior Alex Erickson has proven to be the only consistent receiver on the roster, receiving 31.6% of the team's targets and hauling in 63 catches for 831 yards and three touchdowns. Erickson does not have ideal size (he's listed at 6'0, 197 pounds) but his exceptional route running ability along with his impressive speed make him a legitimate deep threat that the Wildcats will have to account for. Also on the receiving end, senior tight end Austin Traylor, who broke his arm six weeks ago against Iowa, said last week that he expects to play on Saturday. Traylor has caught 10 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns so far this year and would most likely play alongside sophomore tight end Troy Fumagalli. Both Traylor and Fumagalli have excellent size (Traylor is 6'4 while Fumagalli is 6'6) and could cause many matchup problems for Northwestern. Chryst said in his press conference on Monday that Traylor will practice this week but his status for Saturday is still up in the air.