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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Wisconsin

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Northwestern will need its best performance of the year to pull off the huge upset.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern has the opportunity for a program-defining win tomorrow against a top 10 team. With a victory, the Wildcats can not only get a 1-game lead and tiebreaker on a Big Ten West foe, but turn a slow start to the season around and get on track for a good bowl. Wisconsin is thinking about not just competing for a conference championship, but remaining in the College Football Playoff hunt. Both teams’ goals require a win this weekend, and only one team can get one.

Why Northwestern Will Win

They’ll be able to get pressure.

I touched a little bit on this in my article about Northwestern’s secondary last week, but Wisconsin’s offensive line can be exploited in passing situations. Against Bowling Green, Jordan Thompson seemed to revert to the havoc-wreaking version of himself and Tyler Lancaster and Joe Gaziano continued to show up in the backfield. If those three can continue to get pressure, coupled with some well-timed blitzes, the Wildcats can and will hurry Alex Hornibrook into bad decisions.

Thorson’s beautiful deep balls will pay off.

As has been true for the past few years, this Badgers defense is strongest at the linebacker spot, even with the loss of Jack Cichy. As Bucky’s 5th Quarter confirmed for us, junior inside linebacker TJ Edwards is the leader of the defense and he has plenty of talent next to him, with redshirt sophomore Chris Orr leading the team in tackles. How to combat this strength? Throw it over the top. Despite dominating the passing game in general, Wisconsin’s defense has been vulnerable against deep passes (they rank in the 100s in all defensive passing explosiveness stats). With a big receiver in Bennett Skowrownek who has already shown the ability to win one-on-one matches along with a fast slot guy who can take the top off of defenses in Macan Wilson, Thorson has all the weapons he needs to burn Wisconsin deep.

Northwestern plays best against Wisconsin when the Badgers are ranked.

This century alone, Northwestern has beaten Wisconsin four times in games where the Badgers were in the top 20 and the Wildcats were unranked. And that doesn’t even count 2015’s memorable matchup. As long as Barry Alvarez is involved with the Wisconsin program, they will be upset by Northwestern every couple of years. 2017 is that year.

Why Wisconsin Will Win

Northwestern’s offensive line defines the term “shaky” and Wisconsin’s defensive line is impressive once again.

Despite a bounce-back game against Bowling Green, Northwestern’s line still hasn’t shown that they can even put together a solid drive against a strong Power 5 opponent. And TJ Watt may be gone, but it hasn’t seemed to affect Wisconsin’s defensive line against either the run or the pass so far. Wisconsin has absolutely dominated the trenches so far, and though BYU, Utah State, and Florida Atlantic aren’t exactly fantastic opponents, they’ve barely broken a sweat. Oh, and they’re coming off a bye week.

Alex Hornibrook has taken major strides.

The sophomore quarterback is seeing the field better than ever, and with bruising senior tight end Troy Fumagalli at the height of his powers and a trio of talented backs behind him he is going to be tough to beat. Add in a depleted Northwestern secondary and all the mobility in and out of the pocket that you could ask for, and it spells trouble for Mike Hankwitz and the Wildcats’ defense.

The Badgers are just bigger and deeper than the Wildcats.

With Northwestern’s youth on the offensive line and inexperience at defensive end, the only place on the lines that they really have an advantage over the Badgers in is defensive tackle, solely because of Tyler Lancaster’s freakishness. Wisconsin's lines should be able to wear Northwestern down, which bodes well for their chances of success.