This week we’re talking with Jake Kocorowski of Bucky’s 5th Quarter, SB Nation’s Wisconsin blog. Here’s what he sees in the matchup tomorrow:
Inside NU: Wisconsin's S&P+ numbers show the Badgers throw the ball really well (12th in the nation) but run it just above average (46th). It seems like the Badgers lean on the run, though, so are those numbers so misleading? If so, why?
Jake Kocorowski: Wisconsin's run game is critical to the offense's success under head coach Paul Chryst, especially in this two-quarterback system where there's uncertainty to that position's production. When they've been able to run, especially against Ohio State (236 yards), Iowa (167) and Nebraska (223), the Badgers offense is more cohesive and keeps defenses honest. Though they only gained 134 yards on the ground in the season opener against LSU, there were instances where you saw those promising signs in pushing the Tigers' defensive line off the line of scrimmage. Injuries to the offensive line and its running backs the first few games have stifled the growth of the line, but there's some positive momentum coming through with redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen (plus flowing mullet) assuming the left guard position again after a right leg injury. I think next year is where you'll see the line truly emerge as one of the better fronts as seen in year's past.
Back to your question, the S&P+ numbers do feel somewhat misleading in this instance, though there has been much needed production through the air (three players have at or over 25 receptions). Against Nebraska, the Badgers threw for only 114 yards, and both quarterbacks threw key interceptions that could have changed the complexion of the game drastically. They did throw for over 200 yards against the Buckeyes and the Hawkeyes (and in five of their eight games so far). There's just some inconsistencies with the offense in both of those phases that has led to trouble with red zone efficiency (105th in the nation), turnovers (10 interceptions) and delivering the knock out punches to opponents (see: Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska games, though they won the last two).
INU: Wisconsin will play two quarterbacks (Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston) and two running backs (Dare Ogunbowale and Corey Clement) on Saturday. First, what's the thinking behind the two-QB system (Northwestern fans are familiar with Colter-Siemian) and then what are the strengths of the two running backs?
JK: Chryst has noted both quarterbacks need to be prepared this year, and has preached a somewhat cliched but oh-so-true philosophy of needing to convert third downs and red zone opportunities -- which has been a deciding factor at times as to who plays. Chryst though, admitted during last week's press conference that they'll see how it goes. Houston was the starter but struggled against Georgia State (six points, 3-of-9 third downs midway through the third quarter), leading to the switch to the redshirt freshman in Hornibrook. Hornibrook converted 5-of-7 third downs and led the team to three scoring drives in five series against the Panthers. That's where Hornibrook took over, but against the Hawkeyes and Huskers, Chryst has gone back to Houston. Both give a little something different, in my opinion. Houston has an NFL-caliber arm and is a bit more mobile. Hornibrook has a great ability to place a nice deep ball that allows his receivers to make plays, and may be a bit more accurate with his throws. Hornibrook is the quarterback of the future, as was evident in him continuing to play over Houston in their 14-7 loss against Michigan a month ago. How they're used this week is on the minds of many Wisconsin media and Badgers fans.
Clement is the work horse and the No. 1 running back for Wisconsin. He now appears healthy after fighting a sports hernia injury last year and then some ankle troubles earlier this season. I'm still not seeing that top end speed that you saw in 2014, but he still has the ability to get to the second level quickly on a defense. Ogunbowale is that change-of-pace back who's great with pass protection, can catch the ball out of the backfield and run the ball efficiently. Wisconsin effectively used draws and what appeared to be a draw/sweep look out of 11 personnel (out of shotgun) to its advantage last week with Ogunbowale — who ran for 120 yards on 11 carries. Five of those 11 were for over 10 yards — eight of the 11 carries were out of that personnel. There's also redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw, who's shown he can step up with his 21-yard touchdown against Nebraska.
INU: The Badgers have an incredible linebacking corps, but with Jack Cichy out and TJ Watt hurting, who will have to step up? How much of a loss is it if Watt is unable to go?
JK: Watt was off the injury list on Thursday, a promising sign that Wisconsin's leader in sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (9.5) will play in Evanston this week. Whether or not he will see the field, expect a rotation of Garret Dooley (4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) and Zack Baun in during the game. Both have stepped up this year at outside linebacker when Watt or Vince Biegel have been injured, but both also have rotated in even when they were healthy -- and the defense really hasn't missed a beat.
Cichy's injury was a bummer for the defense, as he led the team in tackles, was nominated as a semifinalist for the Butkus award and was known as the "energy" of the defense, according to Biegel. On that note though, the "next man up" philosophy has thrived in that linebacking corp. Leon Jacobs and former walk-on Ryan Connelly played very well against Nebraska, each recording 11 tackles in the overtime win. Connelly was named Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors for his play (including two critical tackles for loss late in the game), and not much changed. Both have that speed all around the field that should help Wisconsin against running back Justin Jackson.
INU: Austin Carr has been a revelation at wide receiver for Northwestern. How do you expect Wisconsin to try to stop him? Will the coaches adjust strategy to limit him?
JK: When talking with Northwestern sideline reporter Adam Hoge (and B5Q founder) last night on our podcast, he mentioned putting two defenders on Carr. That may be the best bet to stop the former walk-on (and as a side note: Wisconsin knows a thing or two about talented walk-ons playing that position in Jared Abbrederis and Alex Erickson). There's a healthy respect for the Northwestern offense from the coaching staff down to the players on the field.
From talking with a couple of players this week, the key could be to stopping the Wildcats' rushing attack first to make them one-dimensional, as there was praise for Jackson and his abilities out of the backfield. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton said on Monday that the coaching staff will obviously game plan, but he feels the secondary, which is thriving under former Wisconsin walk-on, three-time All-American and 10-year NFL veteran Jim Leonhard, has played well this season.
INU: Prediction time: Who leaves Ryan Field with the victory on Saturday and why?
JK: This game could go both ways, honestly. The inconsistent quarterback play and special teams for Wisconsin could be huge X-factors in the game. Couple those with the fact the "Ryan Field Curse" has been in effect since 1999, and it could spell disaster for the Badgers and their Big Ten West division title hopes.
There's just something about this team, though. It's not being homer-ish here, but in covering them this year and with interviews, they play for the team and step up when their opportunities rise. That "grit" factor many people talk about is there on full display, and isn't just a cliche. Despite all the injuries, players have filled in their role when needed. With so much on the line in Evanston, I think Wisconsin will make some plays in the running game with another week of seasoning with that offensive line, and the passing game could take advantage of a Northwestern secondary giving up almost 275 yards per game through the air. I think Carr makes some plays, but Wisconsin's rush defense (ranked 12th in the nation) holds Jackson just enough to make the Wildcats throw more often than they like. Watt's presence will be huge.
I'll go Wisconsin 23, Northwestern 21.