Just one year removed from a season in which it won only one conference game, Northwestern has started its conference-only 2020 campaign 4-0 and is threatening for the Big Ten West title. To attain their second conference championship game appearance in three years, though, the Wildcats will first have to beat the Wisconsin Badgers, who, despite having two games canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak, are still the odds-on favorite to win the division. To upset the Badgers, the ‘Cats will have to weather a tough passing attack led by a young star, some physical play up front and the most stout run defense they’ve faced all year.
Northwestern’s secondary vs. Graham Mertz
When the Wildcats faced the Badgers in Madison last year, then-junior Jack Coan was under center for Wisconsin. While Northwestern ultimately fell to UW on account of several self-inflicted wounds and an inept offense, NU’s defense largely shut down Coan, limiting him to only 113 passing yards, no scores and one stunning JR Pace interception. While Coan was expected to lead Wisconsin’s offense again this year, a preseason foot injury sidelined him indefinitely, forcing redshirt freshman Graham Mertz into the starting role.
Mertz has looked spectacular thus far. In his first start, he dominated Illinois, tossing for 248 yards, five touchdowns and only one incompletion. After testing positive for COVID-19 following the season opener, the Kansas native returned against Michigan to the tune of 127 yards and two touchdowns in the 49-11 rout. Much like Mertz, Northwestern’s pass defense has performed above expectations this season, intercepting eight passes in the first four games after picking off only seven throughout the entire 2019 season. The Wildcats’ Sky Team has limited opponents to 210 yards passing per game and three total touchdowns, while quarterbacks have averaged just 4.77 yards per attempt.
Wisconsin’s beeves vs. Northwestern’s defensive line
You might be wondering what beeves are. To address that, here’s this tweet from our friends at Bucky’s 5th Quarter.
When discussing the Wisconsin offensive line plz use the correct terminology. https://t.co/d9GBrhg2Dh— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) June 26, 2020
All jokes aside, Wisconsin is a program known for its large, imposing offensive linemen. This year’s offensive front is no different, with veteran starters Cole Van Lanen and Logan Bruss leading the way at the tackles and Kayden Lyles replacing three-year starter and now-Dallas Cowboys rookie Tyler Biadasz at center.
To this point in the season, Northwestern’s defensive line has done a good job replacing the production of Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller. Major contributions from Eku Leota and Adetomiwa Adebawore have helped, and Earnest Brown IV has shown strong leadership at defensive end. Wisconsin’s offensive line is arguably the most experienced and talented the ‘Cats have faced thus far, though. The Wildcat unit turned in its most complete performance of the season at Purdue, holding the Boilers to two total rushing yards and putting plenty of pressure on Aidan O’Connell. They’ll need a similar, if not better performance, from the run stoppers and pass rushers on Saturday.
Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser (and Kyric McGowan) vs. Wisconsin’s linebackers
Pat Fitzgerald suggested Monday that running the ball against Wisconsin would be “tough sledding” given both the speed and physicality of the Badger linebackers and the lack of consistency from the NU rushing attack. If recent history is indication of anything, Fitz may be right: in four of the last five seasons, Wisconsin has ranked in the top eight nationally in rushing yards against per game.
Still, Northwestern’s top two backs will have to put up more than the 33 combined rushing yards they recorded against Purdue in order for the Wildcats to pull off the upset on Saturday. The good news is that strong rushing performances against the Badgers are possible, though rare: on four separate occasions in the 2019 season, the Badgers allowed 140 or more yards rushing to opponents, giving Anderson and Bowser some hope that they could possibly bounce back from a rough game in West Lafayette. Based on what we’ve seen from offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, don’t be surprised to see a healthy dose of Kyric McGowan the ball carrier in some fashion.
Honorable mentions: Northwestern vs. failure in one of the three phases, Wisconsin vs. another COVID-induced cancellation.