The top two teams in the division will clash this weekend when Wisconsin makes the trip to Ryan Field. After starting its conference season 4-0 for the first time since 1996, Northwestern is eager to keep its winning streak alive and take a driver’s seat in the West. But Wisconsin looks to foil the Wildcats’ plans as it needs to win out if it hopes to have any chance of succeeding in the postseason following its two-week COVID outbreak.
To learn more about the Badgers, we chatted with Tyler Hunt of Bucky’s 5th Quarter, who broke down Wisconsin’s COVID situation, competitive offense under new quarterback Graham Mertz and stellar defense.
INU: Clearly, the COVID situation in Madison wasn’t ideal early in the season. How has that situation impacted morale in the program and is there concern of another outbreak moving forward?
B5Q: I think the outbreak certainly disappointed some players, and of course fans in general. To start the season out strong with a win and then get it taken away was certainly difficult. Thankfully for the Badgers, they took care of Michigan and still have the opportunity to reach their goals. As for concern of another outbreak, I think that is always there and something that is there for every program across the country. Wisconsin sounds like they’ve tried to keep things in check, but COVID numbers across the state are very poor, so it’s hard to be surprised this happened.
INU: After missing so many games, what are Wisconsin’s expectations and concerns for not only the division standings but their potential in the postseason?
B5Q: I think the expectations are still to win the West division and compete for a Big Ten title. That is more difficult with fewer games, but they still have the chance. I believe the Badgers are just trying to control what they can control and win the games in front of them. However it breaks outside of that, you just have to live with at this point.
INU: Since many typically good Big Ten teams have struggled early on this season, how significant are Wisconsin’s two wins over Illinois and Michigan and what do they say about the team?
B5Q: I think all wins in this condensed season are big and important. Both Ws have came against teams that have really struggled thus far, but that is out of control for Wisconsin and their fans. Illinois was a nice revenge win, and winning at Ann Arbor has been really tough for Wisconsin in recent years, so I think both wins are very important in both the long and short term.
INU: What have you seen from Graham Mertz so far, and what does he bring to the Wisconsin offense?
B5Q: I was very high on Mertz out of high school, and so far, he has been very impressive. In the opener, he looked about as great as you can look as a freshman making your debut. That was really something, but I was also really impressed with him against Michigan when he didn’t have his best stuff. In that game he was rusty, taking two weeks off and having little practice will do that, but he didn’t try to do too much. He knew he didn’t have his best stuff and went out and avoided mistakes. I think for a young QB, that showed a lot of maturation. I’m excited to see what he can do against an even stronger unit this week.
INU: Even after losing Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin’s rushing attack has been solid, especially in the game against Michigan. What have you seen from that room in the first few games, and what does Northwestern have to do to stop them?
B5Q: In the opener, Wisconsin’s run game looked out of sync. The line wasn’t meshing and the running backs weren’t finding or getting through the holes in time. That changed against Michigan. The line looked like a well oiled machine and the likes of Nakia Watson and Jalen Berger we’re able to find gaps. I think that should continue this week, but they’ll face a much tougher task where things won’t come as easily. Wisconsin has struggled offensively against Northwestern the last few years, and that’s because they are so fundamentally sound. Additionally, Paul Chryst and Pat Fitzgerald have been at their respected programs for a decade plus (on and off for Chryst) and know what each other wants to do. Mixing it up will be key for both sides.
INU: Like Northwestern, Wisconsin’s defense has been consistently strong in past seasons and in its first two games this year. However, it also faced weaker opponents like Illinois and Michigan. What can Northwestern fans expect from Wisconsin’s defense and how do you expect it to match up against Northwestern’s offense?
B5Q: Similar to Pat Fitzgerald, Jim Leonhard always has his defense very fundamentally sound. They’ve played great defense under him since he took over, and I would expect that to continue no matter the opponent. I would expect to see a lot of disciplined football where guys know their assignments and are in the correct spots. The run defense has been really good, and that should be the strength of the unit all season. The worry for me is still the amount of pressure UW is getting or can get. Last year they had Zack Baun and Chris Orr to get to the quarterback, but this year Wisconsin has gotten to the QB less and blitzed a little less than what Leonhard usually does. I would expect to see Wisconsin take away the run game and try to get to the quarterback a little bit more.
INU: What are your impressions of Northwestern after starting their season 4-0, and what aspect of the Wildcats’ play is most threatening to Wisconsin?
B5Q: I say this every year, but Northwestern always makes me nervous. That nervousness gets heightened when the Badgers have to go to Ryan Field. Wisconsin has struggled there for years and that part is always a big threat. The other threat is that they just play fundamentally sound football. They may not be the best athletes across the country, but they know what to do and are in the right spot. They don’t make mistakes and that in turn gets you to be in and win a lot of ball games.
INU: Given the history between Northwestern and Wisconsin, how do you think this matchup compares to recent years?
B5Q: I think this one will be another classic slugfest between two Big Ten teams that know each other well. This time though the winner takes control of the West division. It should be a great one, but I would expect much of the same of what we’ve seen the past few years.
INU: What is the biggest weakness in Wisconsin’s game that Northwestern must capitalize on to win?
B5Q: I think the biggest weakness for Wisconsin has been the pass rush so far but really it’s hard to say with such limited sample size. I think Wisconsin and Northwestern will both slow the run games down, so whichever passing game makes more plays will probably win this game. Wisconsin will have to get to Peyton Ramsey and force mistakes, if they don’t and Northwestern is able to sustain drives it could create problems for Wisconsin. Both teams do really well on third down conversions, so staying on the field offensively and getting off the field defensively will be the key. Whoever wins third down more often is winning this football game.
INU: What is your game prediction?
B5Q: I think it will be a very similar game to what we saw last year and really the last few years. I would expect a low scoring affair, but I think Wisconsin will try and open it up more than in year’s past. I think the Badgers escape with a tight win, 24-17.