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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern-Wisconsin

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It won’t be easy, but for the Wildcats to pull the upset they’ll need to win in these key areas.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Northwestern travels to Madison this weekend as 24-point underdogs just a week after Wisconsin thrashed Michigan to move into the top 10 rankings, while, at the same time, NU came out flat against Michigan State. The two teams, however, have played many competitive games recently. Here are the matchups that will be crucial for the Wildcats if they want to right the ship:

Northwestern’s front seven vs Jonathan Taylor

Pat Fitzgerald said Monday that if he had a Heisman vote, Taylor would be it. The junior tailback has been nothing short of a bulldozer since arriving in Madison, accumulating 4,171 yards in his first two seasons. Already this season he’s averaged a whopping 7.6 yards per carry en route to 440 total yards on the ground and seven touchdowns, adding three more receiving scores for good measure. He gashed a supposedly tough Michigan defensive front for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns, of course aided as usual by a strong offensive line.

NU was able to bottle up Taylor in last year’s win, allowing just 46 yards on 11 carries and forcing two fumbles. But it clearly was not the Badger offense’s best performance, and Northwestern’s run defense was at that point in the season markedly stronger than it is right now.

Though the Wildcats gave up just 2.7 yards per carry against Michigan State, Taylor and the Badger o-line provide a much tougher task that will force Mike Hankwitz to load the box more often, potentially leaving NU vulnerable to longer pass plays. However, if they can’t manage to contain the Heisman hopeful for what would be the third season in a row (which, to be honest, seems likely), the Wildcats can have a powwow with Michigan on Saturday night.

Northwestern’s receivers vs Wisconsin’s (kinda) depleted secondary

So far this season, Northwestern’s receivers have not produced the way many had hoped they would. Despite the talent seemingly running deep at the position, the group has managed just 136 yards receiving per game and one total touchdown. That isn’t going to cut it, even for an offense that likes to run the ball as much as possible.

They weren’t bad against the Spartans and did make some nice contested catches, but the overall offensive execution will need to be better against a better defense. Fortunately for Hunter Johnson and his pass-catchers, the Wisconsin secondary, which Fitz praised, will be missing both of its starting safeties for the first half.

Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson were both ejected for targeting in the second half against Michigan, and there are significant injuries at the position as well. Scott Nelson is out for the year, and Madison Cone is questionable to play with a leg injury. Northwestern has not taken many deep shots this season, and the first half might be a good time to do that with Wisconsin desperately thin at the back of their defense.

A young Wildcats team vs Adversity

That’s adversity with a capital A, yes. Pat Fitzgerald was in a mood at his Monday press conference. I’m really not sure exactly what mood to label it as, though. He began very upbeat, wished us students all a good first day of school, and then he became feisty and a little testy.

Ultimately, though, he did not sound especially excited about the morale of his team and its prospects this week. He said he is working on fixing the team’s attitude right now, which he termed too negative/tense. This is a younger group, and one that lost a lot of key veterans at key positions who had experience turning around slow starts in prior seasons.

After experiencing a real gut punch against Michigan State, things get much tougher against a Wisconsin team playing as well as almost anyone in the nation. These next couple of weeks are critical, and if NU doesn’t get its act together the season could be lost by early October. On the other hand, if it does, like past Fitzgerald teams, get things figured out, the group could be back on track in no time.