Every Thursday 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 faces its second straight Top 10 team, as the Wisconsin Badgers roll into Evanston hoping to build off a huge win versus Nebraska last week. The Badgers have used two quarterbacks and a bunch of running backs en route to a very good season so far, and they are very much in the title hunt for the Big Ten West despite two conference losses. Here are three reasons why Northwestern, defending home turf, will win and three reasons they won’t.
Why Northwestern will beat Wisconsin
1. The Wildcats stop the run and forces Wisconsin’s quarterbacks to beat them
Both freshman Alex Hornibrook and senior Bart Houston will see time under center versus Northwestern, and that’s a good thing for Northwestern fans, as neither has shown the ability to take care of the ball. They have thrown 10 combined interceptions, and both had one last week in a 23-17 overtime win. Thus, the Badgers try to pound the ball on the ground with Dare Ogunbowale and Corey Clement. For Northwestern, that’s a good thing; the run defense is 26th in the nation in S&P+ (though the pass defense is technically better at 20th, but few would argue that’s a position of true strength). When Northwestern has won, it has limited the rushing attack. Last year in Madison, the Badgers ran for negative yardage in a 13-7 Wildcat win. If Northwestern stops the run early, as it has done in wins versus Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana, that’ll put it in a good position to win.
2. In its toughest task yet, Northwestern’s offensive line steps up
The better competition, the better this offensive line has performed. They held up reasonably well against Ohio State and have been, in general, very good over the last month. In comes Wisconsin though, a top-five defense equally adept at defending the run and the pass. But last year this defense was just as good if not better and Justin Jackson was still able to rumble for 139 yards on 35 carries. It might take a similar effort this time around, but if the offense can open up some holes for big gains like it did on a few occasions in Madison last year, the Wildcats will have the upper hand.
3. The Ryan Field Curse is real
Remember last week when we talked about how long it’s been since Northwestern won in Columbus? Well, it’s been 17 years since Wisconsin won in Evanston; Cher’s “Believe” was the top song and Star Wars I: the Phantom Menace was the top movie. Strange things tend to happen at Ryan Field when these two teams meet; in 2014, Melvin Gordon ran for well over 200 yards, but his quarterbacks threw four interceptions. If the Ryan Field Curse is a legitimate thing it may come into play again here.
Why Wisconsin will beat Northwestern
1. The defensive pressure limits Clayton Thorson’s downfield passing ability
Perhaps Thorson’s most impressive development is his pocket presence and willingness and ability to stand in the pocket to deliver strikes downfield. But this is the best defense he will face this year — even better than Ohio State’s — and the superb linebacker corps that includes T.J. Watt (who may not play), T.J. Edwards and Vince Biegel is perhaps the best in the nation. The Badgers bring a lot of pressure from all over the place. If Northwestern can’t hold up its end of the bargain, it’ll be hard for Thorson to push the ball down the field.
2. Wisconsin rides Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale to victory
There are few one-two punches as good as Clement-Ogunbowale, especially if both are healthy. Clement was nowhere near 100 percent last year, but if his 54 carries over his last two weeks are any indication, he’s ready and raring to attack this defense that just gave up over 200 yards to Ohio State. The Wildcats did not tackle well against Mike Weber and co., and if that continues, it will be a long afternoon in Evanston. When these two get going, the Badgers can chew clock and win relatively low-scoring games in which they control throughout. With an up-tempo offense like Northwestern on the other side, time of possession could be a big factor.
3. Red zone issues haunt the Wildcats
Twice on Saturday versus Ohio State, Northwestern was unable to punch it in for six after a first-and-goal inside the Buckeye five. The Wildcats settled for three both times, and those eight combined points made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. Neither team has been very good in the redzone (Wisconsin scores on 76.7 (105th) percent of its trips, Northwestern 76.2 (t-107th)), but it’s how Northwestern scores down there that’s worrisome. The Wildcats only have five red zone rushing touchdowns this season; only three teams have fewer. The Wildcats need to find a way to score in these short-yardage situations; Wisconsin has only given up three passing touchdowns in the redzone all year, a top-ten mark nationwide.