Northwestern takes on Wisconsin at Ryan Field at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday. Last season, the ‘Cats fell 24-15 in Madison in what was actually an impressive loss in a dull 2019 campaign. Saturday’s matchup will have much greater implications as should decide the West Division. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will remain undefeated and three reasons it won’t.
Why Northwestern will beat Wisconsin
Northwestern wins the turnover margin
With 10 turnovers in four games, the Wildcat defense has delivered so far on its pre-season task of generating more turnovers. Last week, NU did not need to win the turnover margin but rather force turnovers at critical times. Eku Leota’s forced fumble on Aidan O’Connell proved to be just that, setting up the Wildcat offense with good field possession which led to a two-touchdown lead in the second half. Wisconsin is much better than Purdue though, so if NU can continue to force timely turnovers against Wisconsin, the ‘Cats will have a shot. If Northwestern can win the turnover battle on Saturday, it should be 5-0.
Northwestern controls time of possession
In three of Northwestern’s four wins so far, it has won the time of possession battle by a large margin. The only game NU did not win time of possession was against Nebraska, the game which Northwestern looked most vulnerable this season. On Saturday, NU needs to control the clock to dictate the pace of the game and to move the ball effectively. Wisconsin plays a very similar brand of football to Northwestern and will strive to control the momentum as well. The winner in this category will have the odds in their favor on Saturday.
The ‘Cats keep it close
As Eli Karp pointed out in his article on Thursday, Northwestern is tied with Navy for first in the country for the most one-possession wins in the country since 2006 with 48. In the one matchup between Paul Chryst and Pat Fitzgerald that has been decided by a possession, Northwestern pulled out a controversial victory in a snowy Camp Randall, and Fitz has found a way to pull out the close ones in years where Northwestern has been successful. If NU can find a way to keep it close on Saturday (by winning time of possession and the turnover battle), I like Fitz’s chances to pull it out.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Wisconsin
Northwestern loses the battle in the trenches
Northwestern’s offensive line failed to create running lanes for the ‘Cats running backs on Saturday. The same cannot happen this week. NU’s offensive linemen need to create holes for the running game while also giving Ramsey enough time to throw. Defensively, prior to last week, Northwestern’s pass rush had been its weak spot so far. Mike Hankwitz’s unit will need Eku Leota to follow up on his performance from last week and continue to revive the Wildcat pass rush on Saturday. The same applies for the rushing defense. Wisconsin is famous for its vaunted lineman on both sides of the ball, and NU will need to hold up in the trenches to have a shot at victory.
Peyton Ramsey fails to make timely throws
Heading into West Lafayette, the storyline for Northwestern’s offense revolved around Peyton Ramsey making enough plays to outscore a very good Purdue offense. Ramsey passed the test. His possession before halftime that resulted in an RCB 18-yard touchdown and gave the ‘Cats a seven-point lead instilled a lot of optimism in Wildcat fans around their new signal caller. On Saturday against Wisconsin, Ramsey will need another signature drive or two (or three!) to keep Northwestern in the game. We should find out just how good NU’s graduate transfer signal-caller is against the Badgers.
Wisconsin is simply superior to Northwestern
The key for Northwestern is to keep this game close, allowing Fitz a chance to steal a victory in the fourth quarter. The reality, though, is that we do not know just how good this Wisconsin team is with only two games played. The Badgers looked incredibly impressive in its 45-7 victory over Illinois and 49-11 victory over Michigan. Whether these two games were a byproduct of two poor opponents or a world-beater Badgers team, Saturday will tell. For all we know, Northwestern could play its best game of the season on Saturday and lose. If this is the case, Wisconsin has something special brewing making it harder for Wildcat fans to be disappointed with a loss.