The 8th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers enter their home matchup with Northwestern this Saturday holding a 3-0 record after last week’s shellacking of Michigan to begin conference play. Though the Wildcats are three touchdown-plus underdogs, they have had success at strange times against Wisco in the past, most recently taking down the Badgers 31-17 last season in Evanston.
With NU preparing to head to Camp Randall, we asked Matthew Belz of Bucky’s 5th Quarter to give us everything we needed to know about this year’s Wisconsin team and his takes on the matchup with the Wildcats that awaits them on Saturday.
INU: How much better has Jack Coan and the passing game looked so far this year? What do you attribute that improvement to primarily?
B5Q: At this point the Wisconsin passing game has improved a lot. Jack Coan showed flashes in fall camp, but he has shown a really strong control of the offense so far this year. The area that he has really helped the offense improve upon the most has been taking care of the football.
Alex Hornibrook threw an interception every 18 or so passes, which is just not good enough. So far this year, Coan has yet to throw an interception, which has been huge for the team. I attribute the majority of his success to his ability to read and react well, and the return of Quintez Cephus. The receiving group is very strong and Cephus is the best of the bunch.
INU: Is there a way to stop Jonathan Taylor now that he seems to be fumbling less and less often? Do you think Northwestern has a chance to slow down the run?
B5Q: If there has been one team that has had success slowing Jonathan Taylor it has been Northwestern. In his two games against the Wildcats he has only gained 126 yards in two games, and last season he fumbled twice. I think if there is a team that could do it, it may be Northwestern. Taylor has grown a lot in the fumbling department, but I think if a team wants to stop him they need to play extremely gap sound. Taylor has excellent vision and is able to exploit any missteps by a defense. If Northwestern wants to stop him they will need to sell out on the run and be gap sound to contain him.
INU: Defensively, has the run or pass defense looked more impressive this season?
B5Q: The run defense was a weakness of the team last season. The narrative all off-season while speaking with the defensive players and coaches was just how much stronger and stouter against the run the team had to be. So far, they have really bolstered the run defense. I think that has been the biggest jump for the defense, as they are only allowing a net of 27 yards per game on the ground.
INU: Is the general outrageous defensive success thus far due to level of opponent, or is this group as legit as they look? Who have been the stars thus far?
B5Q: While watching in fall camp the defense seemed to be flying around differently than last year. That has continued into the season. I think that the defensive success is legit. The defense has a confidence and an aura about them that mirrors the three seasons before last year. While I think that the secondary could be a bit rougher this week because of Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson both missing the first half, I think that the front seven is for real and the outside cornerbacks have significant depth.
INU: What are the main weaknesses (if any) of this Wisconsin team?
B5Q: Special teams. The kicking game has not been pretty so far. Collin Larsh looked the part in fall practice, but that has yet to materialize in game action. He has only made one of his four attempts. That will have to improve, especially when Wisconsin is in close games. I also think that the punting game has been up and down. The past two weeks senior Anthony Lotti has done well, but he has struggled at times the past two seasons. In a game that could be closer than the previous three, special teams may play a very important role.
INU: Who are newcomers to watch on both sides of the ball?
B5Q: On offense I think the newcomer to watch is Nakia Watson. The redshirt freshman tailback has good burst and can really move the pile. He runs with authority and is a good change of pace for Jonathan Taylor.
On defense Jack Sanborn has a presence at linebacker. He was a four-star recruit out of Lake Zurich coming out of high school, and he has played well this year. He is one of the leading tacklers, and has also shown the ability to get after the quarterback and play in coverage.
INU: Finally: score prediction?
B5Q: While Northwestern usually rebounds after their sluggish starts, as shown the past couple years, I think Wisconsin is going to be up for this game after losing the way they did last year in Evanston.