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Northwestern-Wisconsin preview: Three matchups to watch

This is a big one.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern’s biggest game of the season thus far, and one of its biggest games of the Pat Fitzgerald era, kicks off this Saturday at 11 am. Below are three key matchups to deciding a matchup that will go a long way in determining this one.

Northwestern’s front seven vs. Jonathan Taylor

It may literally take a village to slow down, if not stop, Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy-candidate running back. A sophomore, Taylor is another NFL-bound player in the Badgers’s storied history of tailbacks. He is averaging 158 yards per game on the ground which includes a whopping 6.5 yards per carry, and, running behind a veteran offensive line, Taylor loves to wear down defensive lines and make explosive runs in the second half. Northwestern’s rush defense has been average, ranking No. 6 in the Big Ten giving up 143 yards per game, and it will be up to Joe Gaziano, Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and the rest of the defense to stop Taylor before his strength and speed wins out in the open field. We saw Devine Ozigbo tear up the Northwestern front two weeks ago, and Taylor is on another level.

Clayton Thorson vs. Wisconsin’s secondary

Clayton Thorson sits third in the Big Ten with 272 passing yards per game, though that’s probably not how Mick McCall and Pat Fitzgerald prefer it — his best performances have come when he’s had to drop back 47 and 63 times, antithetical to the run-first mindset we’ve seen for so long.

The Wildcats finally established the run game last week against Rutgers, one of the nation’s worst defenses in that category. While Wisconsin’s run defense has not been special, Northwestern has struggled to run the ball against everyone not named Rutgers since Jeremy Larkin’s retirement. With the uncertainty surrounding who will get playing time at running back this week, I see the ‘Cats struggling to run the ball as a real possibility. This Wisconsin secondary has put up solid numbers — it’s giving up just 187 yards through the air per game — but it has struggled against better competition. In that case, it’s up to Thorson to throw his team into November. He has struggled to find a rhythm in games he hasn’t dropped back an inordinate amount of times, so it remains to be seen how McCall chooses to attack a Wisconsin defense that is more susceptible to big plays than in past years.

Pat Fitzgerald vs. big games

Pat Fitzgerald has gotten the Northwestern Football program to a place that 10 years ago was unimaginable to many. Now, it’s time for him to take the next step and dethrone a division nemesis to clear his team a path to the Big Ten title game. We hear much about how successful NU is in close games, but those games haven’t normally meant contending for the Big Ten West against the best in the conference.

We’ve also seen Northwestern pull off some pretty big upsets, like against Notre Dame and Wisconsin in 2014, but not when its season was on the line. When the season could truly be made special, the ‘Cats have not come through. See: 2013 Ohio State game, loss by 10; 2015 Michigan game, loss by 38; 2015 Iowa game, loss by 30; 2017 Penn State game, loss by 24. The ‘Cats are once again underdogs yet contenders. This is Clayton Thorson’s last chance, and one of Pat Fitzgerald’s best chances, to get to Indianapolis.