Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern's game against Wisconsin.
1. Northwestern's defensive line against Wisconsin's offensive line
Northwestern fans are all too familiar with Wisconsin's running backs having their way against the Wildcats. In recent memory, there was PJ Hill torching the Northwestern for 249 yards in 2006, Montee Ball and his four touchdowns in 2010, and who could forget Melvin Gordon's 259-yard performance last year. These running backs are all very talented, not to mention this year's starter, Corey Clement, who has played sparingly but is set to return against Northwestern. But ultimately their success starts with Wisconsin's offensive line which has often featured NFL-ready, All-Big Ten players.
Saturday's game, and this matchup in particular, will be different than in the past. A year ago, Wisconsin's offensive line had the same starters in all 14 games. This year, the Badgers required five different combinations of linemen through the first seven games alone. The results have been what you may have expected. Three redshirt freshmen have seen their first college action, the running game has stalled, and Badgers quarterbacks have been sacked 18 times. Wisconsin allowed 13 sacks all of last season. Consequently, the Badgers' rushing offense ranks only ninth in the Big Ten and 88th nationally. From 2008-14, Wisconsin never ranked worse than 15th in the country.
Northwestern's defense line will look to exploit the inexperienced Wisconsin offensive line and shut down the biggest weapon for the Badgers, their run game. In Wisconsin's two losses on the season, to Alabama and Iowa, they managed a meager 126 yards on the ground. The Badgers lost the battle at the line of scrimmage and were forced to abandon the run. Northwestern's D-line may not be Alabama's, but they've been effective in shutting down the run to the tune of 136 yards per game. The performance of the Wildcats' line, specifically tackles CJ Robbins, Tyler Lancaster, Max Chapman and Jordan Thompson will be crucial for Northwestern in this game.
Advantage: Northwestern's defensive line
2. Joel Stave vs. the Northwestern secondary
When Wisconsin visited Ryan Field last season, Joel Stave was not the Badger's starter. He would play however, replacing then-starter Tanner McEvoy in the second half. Stave promptly threw three interceptions, one to Jimmy Hall and two to Godwin Igwebuike, to preserve the upset for Northwestern.
The often unpredictable senior has surprisingly put together a solid season. Although he hasn't returned to sophomore form where he threw for nearly 2500 yards and 22 touchdowns, Stave's led Wisconsin to the fourth best passing offense in the Big Ten, completing 61% of his passes and averaging 216.7 yards per game. He's also thrown for 300 yards twice this season, albeit against Nebraska and Purdue.
It will be interesting to watch Stave against the terrific Northwestern secondary that allows just 184 yards per game and has only conceded five touchdowns. Stave is a bit one-dimensional, he's not very mobile, and he targets receiver Alex Erickson on just over 30 percent of his pass attempts. Facing Erickson will be a good test for Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose. The Wildcats secondary has contained future NFL quarterbacks Kevin Hogan and Christian Hackenberg so far this year, and if Northwestern's defense can force Wisconsin into throwing situations, they could have an edge on the talented but erratic Stave.
Advantage: Northwestern's secondary
3. Justin Jackson vs. Wisconsin's linebackers
On the offensive side of the ball for Northwestern, Justin Jackson has found his stride once again. After disappearing for a three-game stretch against Michigan, Iowa, and Nebraska where he rushed for a total of 95 yards (although it's unfair to blame him for poor blocking and play-calling), Jackson has returned to his freshman self where he ran for nearly 1,200 yards. He tore up Penn State's vaunted defense for 186 yards and picked up 116 against Purdue to vault himself to the conference's third leading rusher.
Trying to defend the rejuvenated Northwestern rushing attack will be Wisconsin linebackers TJ Edwards, Chris Orr, Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. Despite yielding 238 rushing yards to Alabama week one, Wisconsin's defense allows an average of just 97.3 rushing yards per game. That's good for first in the Big Ten and fifth in the country. The success begins with its 3-4 defense that has allowed the linebackers to blitz more often and make plays. It starts with the freshman Edwards. He's a downhill, defend the run inside linebacker, but will have his hands full on Saturday. Orr, a fellow freshman, has stepped up and filled the other inside linebacker position admirably. Schobert and Biegel, the outside linebackers, are tops among the Big Ten in tackles for a loss and have disrupted running plays in the backfield all season. Both will be playing on Sunday's in due time and present a tough matchup for Jackson.
Jackson is most effective when he can cut up field and run downhill, and that is exactly what the Wisconsin linebackers will be trying to prevent. They will be getting help from safety Michael Caputo as Wisconsin will likely stack the box until Clayton Thorson starts beating them with passes downfield. I'm excited to watch this matchup and I think both sides will have their share of success. Also, I have to mention that Northwestern's running game is much more than Jackson. Thorson has shown he can make plays with his legs and Warren Long is averaging six yards per carry. The Wildcats average 196 yards per game on the ground and Wisconsin's run defense is among the best in the country. Something has to give.
Advantage: Too close to call