The final installment of our 2020 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
When we last saw the Wildcats next opponent, the Wisconsin Badgers, they were in Pasadena, taking on the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl. While they lost that game, the Badgers still had a season to remember, with major wins over Michigan, Iowa, rival Minnesota, and an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game. Now, head coach Paul Chryst looks to add another quality season in Madison to his record after losing program legend running back Jonathan Taylor.
Returning Production: 72 percent (Offense 62 percent, Defense 81 percent)
2019 record: 10-4 (7-2 Big Ten)
Coach: Paul Chryst
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2019 S&P+ Overall: 11th
2019 S&P+ Offense: 12th
2019 S&P+ Defense: 14th
The best way to describe the beginning of the Badgers’ 2019 season is dominant: Wisconsin won its first six games, four of which in shutout fashion (South Florida, Central Michigan, Kent State and Michigan State) while tallying 35+ points in all but one matchup, a 24-15 win over Northwestern. While not their largest margin of victory, the Badgers put the nation on watch after handling then-eleventh ranked Michigan 35-14 in their third game of the season and consistently flirted with top 10 status in the AP poll.
Wisco’s first loss of the year came at the hands of Illinois after a last-second field goal dropped the Badgers from the sixth spot in the AP poll and all but dashed their College Football Playoff hopes. Wisconsin had no time to recover before meeting third-ranked Ohio State the next week, ultimately losing 38-7. They bounced back, however, winning their last four games, including an upset of rival No. 8 Minnesota on the road in the final week of the regular season to earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship game. There they were met again by the Buckeyes, this time in the top spot in the poll, but the result was no different, losing 34-21.
With Ohio State in the College Football Playoff, Wisconsin represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl where to play No. 7 Oregon. In a back-and-forth game, the Badgers were burned by three rushing TDs from Justin Herbert and ended up dropping the game 28-27. Four Badgers were drafted into the NFL, one each in rounds 2-5, including Taylor in the second. On the year, the Badgers averaged 433 offensive yards per game, including 233 rushing, and allowed a stout 289 yards per game on defense.
Wisconsin’s offensive unit will look a bit different in 2020 with the notable absences of Taylor and center Tyler Biadasz, who was drafted to the NFL in the fourth round this April. Their offense in 2019 relied heavily on Taylor, ranking 15th in the FBS in rushing, while their passing game gave them just enough to keep defenses in check.
Senior Jack Coan appears to have his hands on the starting job under center for the Badgers after posting a solid 69.6 completion percentage last year. However, with five-star redshirt freshman Graham Mertz breathing down his neck, Coan and the passing game will need to play a bigger role in the offense if the running game drops off with Taylor’s departure.
Speaking of replacing Taylor, no one back may get the chance to do so for Wisconsin in 2020. While senior Garrett Groshek boasts the most experience, sophomore Nakia Watson has shown flashes of potential and could be the Next Big Thing from a program with a robust history of running back development. Look for snaps to be divided between several backs.
Led by seniors Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, the Badgers return an older yet inexperienced receiving corps after losing two of their top targets from last season to the NFL and transfer portal. While young receivers may get their chance to prove themselves, Wisconsin may also rely more heavily on tight end Jake Ferguson, who notched 407 yards and two touchdowns in 2019.
In 2019, the Badgers defense was yet again an absolute force to be reckoned with. Much of the team’s attention was placed on the Doak Walker Award winner Taylor, but it’s safe to attribute much of Wisconsin’s success to their defense, which ranked fourth in the nation in total defense. Their dominance was particularly prevalent against the run, allowing just under 100 total rushing yards a game.
At the core of UW’s defensive success was its linebackers. Jack Sanborn, Chris Orr and Zack Baun combined for a whopping 233 tackles and 29.5 sacks last season, making particularly short work of plays up the middle while creating a pass rush that threatened even the most mobile quarterbacks. With Orr and Baun out of the picture, though, it’s possible that the Badgers will have a slight fall-off at linebacker, with Sanborn accompanied by less experienced players like Leo Chenal, Noah Burks and Izayah Green-May in their place.
Wisconsin’s starting defensive line, on the other hand, remains entirely intact for the 2020 season, and with another year of development, projects to be even better than last year. This could create problems for a team like Northwestern, which was reliant upon the run game last year in absence of a functioning pass offense. If Mike Bajakian’s system resembles the run-heavy schemes of the Mick McCall era, Northwestern may struggle to move the ball down the field like they did last year in Madison, when they put up only three points in the first three quarters.
Even if the ‘Cats adopt a more pass-friendly approach offensively, they may still struggle against Wisconsin. The Badgers allowed the 12th fewest passing yards per game in the country last year, and, much like the defensive line, their entire starting defensive backfield is returning for the 2020 season. So, while the run-the-dang-ball philosophy will attract attention yet again, it is the defense that has laid the groundwork for success in years past and will continue to do so this year.
Three Players to Know
Nakia Watson, RB
From the program that brought you stars like Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor comes a thrilling new running back. The redshirt sophomore is expected to take over the reins in the backfield with Taylor’s departure, and while Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle has noted that the team may take more of a committee approach, his youth and 230 pound build — as well as Wisconsin’s reputation for developing elite running backs — makes him a must-watch player for the Badgers this year.
Scott Nelson, S
After starting eight games in 2018, Nelson went into the 2019 campaign expecting to be a year-long starter and a major contributor to the Badgers defense. Such plans came to a halt during UW’s season-opener against South Florida when he suffered a torn ACL. Now, following a year of recovery, Nelson is anticipating his first full season as a starter. Given that in just nine appearances he accumulated 44 tackles, a forced fumble, an interception and six pass breakups, many believe he could be in for a breakout season.
Jack Sanborn, LB
Sanborn led the Badgers in tackling last season, recording 80 total tackles (including 50 solo stops) while logging three interceptions and a forced fumble. He is listed by Athlon Sports alongside Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher and now-former Penn State defender Micah Parsons as a First-Team All Big Ten linebacker for the 2020 season. Simply put, he’s a versatile linebacker of the highest pedigree and is poised to cause a fair share of problems for Wisconsin’s opponents this year.