Saturday’s matchup between No. 19 Northwestern and No. 10 Wisconsin serves as the de facto Big Ten West championship game. The conference’s questionable tiebreaker rules state that a 5-1 Wisconsin team would earn a trip to Indianapolis over 7-1 Northwestern if the Badgers were to win Saturday.
UW has lost two matchups to a COVID-19 outbreak and can’t afford to miss another to still be eligible for the Big Ten Championship game.
Here are three things to know about the Badgers of Madison.
Wisconsin has earned its reputation as “Offensive Line University”
Wisconsin is strong on both sides of the ball and boasts an impressive offensive line, which comes as no surprise given that ESPN named Wisconsin the No. 2 producer of O-Line talent in the country behind perennial powerhouse Alabama. This year, they welcome a pairing of four-star recruits Jack Nelson and Trey Wedig, along with a plethora of talented tight ends.
The Badgers will use their sheer size and trademark Wisconsin grit to open up lanes for whomever is running the ball in the absence of 2019 Heisman finalist Jonathan Taylor. Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher and the rest of front seven will look to stifle the new-look Wisconsin offense, as Fisher works to prove to NFL teams that he can disrupt elite offensive schemes. Wisconsin most closely resembles what Fisher will face in the NFL of Northwestern’s opponents this year.
Wisconsin hasn’t played a competitive game yet
This game feels a bit like Rocky IV, with the Badgers in the role of Ivan Drago.
They have been utterly dominant so far this season. They’ve outscored opponents 94-18 in their two games and have won the time of possession battle, with the offense spending over 40 minutes on the field in each game. They have faced almost no defensive resistance to their offensive attack and have been able to turn their +1.5 turnover differential per game into meaningful points.
Counter that with Northwestern, a team that has had to scratch and claw for every win (with the exception of Maryland). The Wildcats knows what it takes to close out ballgames, and the defense has been stingy in the second half, giving up points in the third and fourth quarters only to Purdue.
Yes, Wisconsin is good and can convincingly beat up on bad teams. But they haven't faced any on-field adversity yet, minus the COVID scare, so it’s unclear how redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz will perform in the heat of a close game.
Graham Mertz has impressed thus far
That being said, Mertz has played excellently this year. He opened up the season against Illinois going 20-of-21 for 248 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Badgers have historically relied on a strong run game paired with mediocre quarterback play, so this year’s team has proven it can flip that script.
Mertz has put up big numbers but still hasn't seen a good enough defense to make him uncomfortable. Northwestern’s front seven needs to apply pressure on Mertz and force him to show he has the ability to a beat a good Big Ten team.
Nobody in Evanston has forgotten about the magical 2018 season which ended in a Big Ten Championship appearance for the ‘Cats. Nobody in Madison has forgotten about the 2019 season which ended in a similar trip to Indy and Rose Bowl appearance for the Badgers. It remains to be seen which program will return to the title game for 2020 Champion’s Week.