Every Thursday or Friday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, Northwestern travels to Camp Randall Stadium in search of its first victory at Wisconsin since 2000. Northwestern is coming off three consecutive wins, but Wisconsin has also rattled off five in a row. Wisconsin has played well since losing an ugly home game to Iowa in Week 5, especially on the defensive side of the football. Paul Chryst's team has cruised through the dregs of the Big Ten, beating Purdue, Illinois, and Rutgers by double digits and winning 31-24 at Maryland its last time out. With both teams coming in at 8-2, this game could have major Big Ten bowl implications. Northwestern enters the game as 11-point underdogs.
Here are three reasons why the Wildcats will beat those odds and stun the Badgers, and three reasons why they won't:
Why Northwestern will beat Wisconsin
1. Northwestern's pass defense shuts down Joel Stave
Obviously, Northwestern has heavily relied on its defense to remain competitive this season. After two awful performances against Michigan and Iowa, the defense has looked much better in recent weeks. Northwestern can win a defensive battle against Wisconsin as long as NU's 11th-ranked pass defense remains at a high level. That's because this isn't your traditional Wisconsin team. Known in the past for menacing ground attacks and a complimentary-at-best passing attack, the Badgers have flipped the script in 2015. Per S&P+, the Badgers' passing offense is 35th in the country while their rushing offense is just 75th.
Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose will need to shut down Wisconsin receiver Alex Erickson and the rest of the Badgers' weapons. Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike will be key as well, as they must balance stepping up to stop the run with keeping contain over the top. Wisconsin's running game will once again be without its preseason starting running back Corey Clement, who will likely miss the game due to his lengthy recovery from sports hernia surgery. If Northwestern's pass defense can hold, the defense should be able to keep Northwestern's offense in the game.
2. Northwestern wins the turnover battle
I know, this is basically the most obvious reason teams win football games. But it's true, Northwestern's chances will be much better if they can win the turnover battle. While the Wildcats got away with three bad turnovers because they were playing Purdue last week, Northwestern will probably not beat Wisconsin with a -2 turnover differential. Clayton Thorson has to be more careful throwing and running the football. The defense needs to come up with a few big plays to get Northwestern good field position against Wisconsin's solid defense, as Northwestern currently ranks a horrendous 122ndin starting field position due to its struggling offense. On the positive end, Northwestern's defense has been quite good at forcing turnovers at critical moments this season. If it can force Stave into some mistakes and pick up a fumble, Northwestern will be in good shape.
3. Northwestern's offense breaks big plays
Northwestern has shown an ability to break big plays, and one or two big plays could prove to be the difference if the defense can keep it close. Northwestern is 6th in rushing explosiveness, a surprising stat after last year's complete lack of explosive plays, and the Wildcats could manage to score some points on big rushing plays. Thorson could definitely take advantage of a broken pocket and good blocking to pick up yards down the field. Justin Jackson, Warren Long and Solomon Vault have all shown excellent big play ability at times this season. Heck, maybe Mike McCall will feel lucky and dial up a long pass play to Dan Vitale or Miles Shuler.
The problem is that Wisconsin's defense is solid. Northwestern is ahead in FEI (NU 10th, WIS 15th), which measures adjusted opponent drive efficiency, but Wisconsin has a slight edge in S&P (NU 8th, WIS 6th). These differences are negligible. Wisconsin's defense is very good, and Northwestern's offense (ranked 109th in S&P) is not. Northwestern's offense needs to support the defense and put up some points, by any means necessary. It can't settle for field goals when inside the 15-yard line. It cannot waste any opportunities generated by a turnover or special teams play. Jack Mitchell has to be fourth-quarter Jack Mitchell for the whole game.
Wisconsin has shut down teams with better offenses than Northwestern's. The Badgers limited Iowa to just 10 points when the Hawkeyes came to Camp Randall in Week 5, a result which now looks very impressive. But if Northwestern can get some big plays on offense and play excellent defense, which they have been doing on this win streak, I see no reason why they can't get a tough road win.
Why Northwestern Will Lose to Wisconsin
1. Northwestern's offensive line crumbles
Northwestern's offensive woes have been well-documented, and it won't get any easier against Wisconsin. Northwestern's passing attack has been nonexistent in the last two weeks and below average for the entire year. Northwestern is also dealing with some offensive line injuries after losing Geoff Mogus and Shane Mertz. Ian Park's status is also uncertain, so Connor Mahoney might have to start at left guard. The line gave up two sacks and six quarterback hits against a mediocre Purdue defensive front last week. Wisconsin enters the game 18th in adjusted sack rate. Wisconsin linebacker Joe Schobert and the rest of the pass rush could have a field day against Northwestern's banged up offensive front.
2. Bad Clayton Thorson shows up
Clayton Thorson played three awful quarters against Purdue last week, which forced head coach Pat Fitzgerald to pull Thorson and bring Zack Oliver off the bench for two series. When that didn't work, Thorson returned and looked better in the final minutes of the game. Thorson will be under pressure from Wisconsin's pass rush the entire game, and he won't be able to do much through the air if the offensive line struggles. That could spell trouble.
All the bad aspects of Thorson's rookie season were on display last week against Purdue, and if he can't find a rhythm against Wisconsin, the Northwestern offense could be even worse than usual. If Thorson consistently has to drop back on third-and-7 and third-and-9, with Wisconsin senior Michael Caputo staring him down from his safety position, Northwestern's third-down efficiency, which has been oddly good this year, will suffer. Northwestern's receivers also have to step up and make plays so Thorson can get comfortable. Unfortunately, the unit has often been the worst unit on the field the last two weeks.
3. Wisconsin is a deeper and more balanced team than Northwestern
Although Joel Stave hasn't exactly lit the world on fire and his opposing competition has been lacking, the Badgers look like a more balanced team than Northwestern at the moment. Wisconsin is one of the few teams in the country that can compete with Northwestern defensively, and the Wisconsin offense is considerably more consistent than Northwestern's. Wisconsin is also playing at home and coming off a bye-week.
While Northwestern has the defensive ability to limit Wisconsin, Northwestern has to have a number of other factors break its way in order to win this game. I'm not sure Wisconsin should be favored by double-digits after beating the bottom of the Big Ten, but the Badgers have been empirically playing better than Northwestern since the start of conference play. They're a more well-oiled machine at this point, and could show it Saturday.