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Northwestern vs. Wisconsin preview: Three matchups to watch

This week’s game has huge implications in the Big Ten West.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Football is an 11-on-11 game, but you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Wisconsin.

Justin Jackson vs. Wisconsin’s front seven

Jackson is obviously a key for Northwestern every week, but he’ll be especially important Saturday. Northwestern is going up against one of the best defenses in the country, and the hosts can’t afford to get behind the chains. By nearly every rushing metric, Wisconsin’s defense is elite: It’s ranked eighth in country in overall rushing S&P+ and second in IsoPPP, meaning they don’t give up very many explosive plays, or yards at all. Jackson doesn’t need to have a field day for the Wildcats to win, but he has to be effective. If the offense finds itself in a lot of third-and-longs, T.J. Watt & co. will be able to take over the game on the pass rush. Jackson needs a performance similar to what he did against Ohio State, at the very least.

Northwestern’s front seven vs. Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale on first down

As you can probably tell, the ground game is of the utmost importance this week. Wisconsin has yet to find a bonafide starting quarterback this season; Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook will probably both see some action this week, but neither has taken the job and ran with it. So, Northwestern must put Wisconsin in passing downs to force the Badger quarterbacks to win the game. Ohio State had four runs for 10 or more yards on first down a week ago, and if the same trend continues Saturday, it could be a long day for the Northwestern defense. The Wildcats will need big performances from C.J. Robbins and Jordan Thompson in the middle against a physical Badger offensive line.

Jack Mitchell vs. Wisconsin

Because of how good Wisconsin’s defense is, every point will be crucial for Northwestern. The Badgers have played six one-score games this season (out of eight total games), including the previous four games. The Badgers understand they don’t have a great quarterback situation, so they grind out their wins in low-scoring fashion. This means there’s a good chance one or two plays could decide this game. Mitchell has been perfect over the last four games, and continuing this streak would go a long way toward a Northwestern win this week. Leaving points on the table against such a stout defense would be demoralizing, and probably costly.