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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Wisconsin

Northwestern will need to play better than it did last week, for starters.

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

After escaping Piscataway (shrug), Northwestern hosts Wisconsin at Ryan Field for a critical Big Ten West matchup. Northwestern has won just one home game this season, and it will need to play much better in front of the home crowd to earn a win against a tough Wisconsin team.

Why Northwestern will beat Wisconsin

  1. Clayton Thorson goes Super Saiyan on Wisconsin

For once, Wisconsin’s defense is not an elite unit. Wisconsin has been a top-10 defense by S&P+ since 2014, but the Badgers have sunk to a disappointing 66th in 2018. Even if you ignored the stats, Wisconsin’s once-vaunted defense is not what it used to be. Shea Patterson and Michigan, the same team that looked completely putrid at Ryan Field for three quarters, put up 31 points on Wisconsin two weeks ago. Illinois managed to score 20. Nebraska nearly out-gained Wisconsin and threw for 407 yards despite losing 41-24. Some of those poor numbers can be put down to garbage time, but there’s no chance the suffocating Wisconsin defenses of years past would let these results sustain over a full season.

Thus, there should be opportunities for Clayton Thorson to get Northwestern’s passing game going. Northwestern found a semblance of a running game last week with Isaiah Bowser and Chad “Mr. Inspirational” Hanaoka in the backfield, and Bowser should at least give Northwestern a little breathing room against a rather porous Wisconsin run defense. But Northwestern is going to win this game based on whether good Thorson shows up. If he can show the flashes of NFL talent that he’s shown at times this season, Northwestern will definitely make things interesting. If we get Bad Thorson™, Wisconsin’s offense will run away with this game very quickly.

2. Northwestern’s secondary holds up and makes big plays

The strengths of Northwestern’s defense this year (and seemingly every year) have been the linebacking corps and the pass rush. Joe Gaziano and Tim McGarigle’s assembly line of man-eating linebackers should make life difficult for Alex Hornibrook, but it won’t matter if the secondary allows Hornibrook to stretch the field and open up holes for star running back Jonathan Taylor. Northwestern can slow down this monstrous Wisconsin offense if it plays good coverage for the entire game, which hasn’t happened much this season. A few turnovers would also be nice.

3. Pat Fitzgerald makes optimal decisions and Paul Chryst does not

There has been a lot of flak thrown at Pat Fitzgerald for his in-game decision-making. Personally, I think his aggressiveness on fourth down and in special teams has been a net positive for Northwestern. He’s certainly got some numbers guy in his ear telling him the latest fourth down calculations, and as a noted “statistics are not for losers” guy, I tend to agree with the process. Northwestern-Wisconsin games are generally close, and Northwestern needs all the help it can get as a touchdown underdog. For whatever foibles Northwestern has had thus far, the Wildcats need to stay aggressive and make opportunities for itself. I can’t speak for Wisconsin’s decision-making, but obviously a few lapses there would be good.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Wisconsin

  1. Wisconsin’s offensive line plays too well for Northwestern’s pass rush

The strength of this Wisconsin team is its star-studded offensive line. Football Outsiders says Wisconsin has the No. 1 offensive line in the country. I’d put them behind Alabama, but yeah, Northwestern still has to find a way to break down a ridiculously talented offensive line with two 2017 All-Americans and a couple other likely All-Big Ten-caliber players. Wisconsin’s biggest advantage will go up against Northwestern’s front seven, the heart of the Wildcats for the last five years or so at this point. Northwestern’s linebackers have been neutralized in their last two meetings, and if it happens again, Wisconsin will run over Northwestern.

2. Northwestern’s offense has been appallingly mediocre

Have you watched Northwestern play offense recently? It’s bad. I mean, I can give you some numbers. Northwestern’s offensive line ranks 127th on Football Outsiders in adjusted line yards. With Larkin gone, the running game still leaves much to be desired. I’m not sure if Bowser’s big day will sustain itself given that it came against Rutgers. Honestly, some of those moments in the Rutgers game were so bad that I have no faith in this offense’s ability to do anything. There really isn’t a quantifiable or analytical reason. It just hard for Northwestern to do anything. They can do things (see Michigan State) but it’s more likely they will not.

3. Northwestern continues to treat big plays like the plague

Conventional football wisdom says that making big plays is good on offense. Northwestern has studiously avoided making big plays this season, ranking an awful 117th in ISOPPP+ (an explosiveness metric). I mean, ignore the stats again. Just think back to the last time you were really excited about a huge Northwestern gain. Can you remember anything specific? Wisconsin is not a big play team on offense. They’re Wisconsin. But Wisconsin’s defense has been awful at limiting big plays this season, ranking 90th in ISOPPP+ themselves. Northwestern needs to open up the playbook and try to be more explosive. If Northwestern continues on its current trajectory though, they will be neglecting a key advantage.