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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 5: Wisconsin

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The Wildcats have won just twice in Madison since 2000.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

Northwestern will ship up to Madison in Week 5 for what could prove to be a pivotal early season contest in determining how the Big Ten West will shake out in 2019. Here’s what you need to know about a 2019 Badger team that will be hungry for revenge after getting embarrassed at Ryan Field last October:

The Basics

Returning production: 73 percent (Offense 85 percent, Defense 60 percent)

2018 record: 8-5 (5-4 B1G)

Coach: Paul Chryst (5th season, 42-12)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2018 S&P+ Overall: 19th

2018 S&P+ Offense: 12th

2018 S&P+ Defense: 29th

2019 S&P+ Projection (Feb. 11): 11th

2018 Capsule

Paul Chryst’s team took some major steps back in 2017 after finishing 13-1 the year before. The Badgers floundered early in the season with a home defeat to BYU (despite a top-five ranking at the time) and virtually traded wins and losses from that point all the way until their blowout Pinstripe Bowl victory over Miami. Wisconsin reeled off two solid conference victories over Iowa and Nebraska to start their Big Ten slate, but blowout defeats at the hands of Michigan and then NU two weeks later essentially erased any remaining hopes of repeating as West division champions.

An 8-5 overall record with a bowl win over a Power 5 opponent isn’t exactly a failure of a season, but the expectations were certainly higher for the Badgers, who sported a Heisman-caliber running back and loaded group in the trenches on each side of the ball. Wisconsin also failed to retain the coveted Paul Bunyan Axe for the first time since 2003 as P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers destroyed a battered Wisconsin team at Camp Randall.

Offensive Overview

The Badger offense is shaping up to be a one-man show starring junior running back Jonathan Taylor, and the truth is he might be enough to keep them in contention for the West this year. Alex Hornibrook, who started nine games under center for Wisco in 2018, has transferred to Florida State to fulfill his final year of eligibility, and head coach Paul Chryst has yet to name a starter for the upcoming year.

Jack Coan earned four starts in 2018 in place of an injured Hornibrook (including against the Wildcats, when he didn’t do much), but will face competition for the starting job from returners Danny Vanden Boom, Chase Wolf and Nate Carter as well as true freshman Graham Mertz — the 2019 All-American Bowl MVP.

Chryst will also have to replace four of the five typical starters from last year’s offensive line. Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards are the three newest Badger lineman to graduate to the NFL, while the unit’s primary left tackle in 2018, Jon Dietzen, retired from football altogether. Taylor will have a whole new set of blockers in front of him as he tries to repeat as the NCAA rushing leader (he amassed a whopping 2194 yards on the ground last season).

Defensive Overview

By Wisconsin standards, the 2018 Badger defense struggled.

Injuries and inconsistent defensive line play plagued the unit in 2018, as they allowed over 20 points per game for the first time since 2010. Standout linebackers T.J. Edwards and Andrew Van Ginkel have graduated, while Wisco’s second leading tackler in 2018, Ryan Connelly, is gone as well, all three moving on to the pros. The Badgers will also be without last year’s top safety in D’Cota Dixon.

Overall, the unit is losing plenty of starters from a group that wasn’t all too impressive last season. That said, this Badger team is full (as it always is) with plenty of solid recruits and athletic bodies who have significant experience despite not being named starters up to this point in their Wisconsin careers. Sophomore Scott Nelson, in particular, will look to lead a young Wisco secondary after impressing in 2018 despite battling injuries through much of the year.

Three Players to Know

Bryson Williams, DE

The sophomore nose tackle will be tasked with restoring order to a Wisconsin run defense that gave up nearly 160 yards per game on the ground in 2018. Williams saw action in every game last season as a true freshman, and will look to anchor a group that finished top five in the country in rushing yards allowed for 2015, 2016, and 2017 before last season’s uncharacteristic performance.

Graham Mertz, QB

The third-highest ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class might have a chance to see the field early for the Badgers if Chryst is feeling a little risky with his subpar quarterback situation. Mertz will have to beat out Jack Coan as well as three other returning options from last year’s squad, but the 2018 Kansas High School Player of the Year and 2019 All-American Bowl MVP may very well be up to the challenge.

It’ll probably be him or Coan under center when the Wildcats square off against the Badgers in late September, and though his head coach doesn’t exactly have a reputation for making flashy decisions, don’t rule the talented Mertz out.

Jonathan Taylor, RB

Last year’s Doak Walker Award winner is back for his junior season, and (surprise!) he’s still really really good at running the ball. Northwestern was the only team to keep him under 100 yards on the ground in 2018. Let’s hope he doesn’t hold grudges.