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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Wisconsin

The Wildcats clash with yet another ranked foe in one of college football’s landmarks.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Saturday, Northwestern makes the nearly three-hour trek up to Madison, Wis. to play the No. 18 (well, according to the College Football Playoff committee rankings, but who knows that those mean) Badgers.

What would a Wildcat win in Camp Randall Stadium entail? How awry could things go for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad (hint: very)? Here is why Northwestern will/won’t beat Wisconsin.

Why Northwestern will beat Wisconsin

Graham Mertz is forced to throw the ball

The demise of Graham Mertz has been well-documented across the college football landscape. The quarterback who threw five touchdowns — and just one incompletion! — to begin the 2020 season is a shell of his former self, and that self-destruction began when he faced Northwestern last year.

Just a game back from being sidelined with COVID-19, Mertz ran into the battering ram that was Mike Hankwitz’s 2020 defense. The Badgers gunslinger threw three interceptions — two of which were collected by Brandon Joseph — en route to a Northwestern win.

Paul Chryst’s game plan in 2021 has been quite simple: prevent Mertz from ruining games rather than enabling him to go win them. The sophomore quarterback has thrown for 23 or more attempts in two Wisconsin games this year, both of which ended in defeat. During the Badgers’ five-game win streak, conversely, Mertz has tossed a maximum of 22 passes in a game.

If Jim O’Neil’s defense can stop the run and make Mertz gain yardage through the air, there’s a solid chance that the ‘Cats could snag multiple interceptions.

Winning the turnover battle

Here is Wisconsin’s record breakdown in terms of turnover margin:

Won Turnover Margin: 4-0

Tied Turnover Margin: 2-0

Lost Turnover Margin: 0-3

It’s clear that when Wisco retains the ball, it tends to win ball games.

This point is directly intertwined with Mertz’s inaccuracy, but the Badgers have also totaled seven fumbles lost in nine games played.

Against Iowa last Saturday night, the ‘Cats were unable to secure any loose balls – largely due to Kirk Ferentz inserting the more sure-handed Anthony Padilla for Spencer Petras. Regardless, Fitzgerald’s team must pry the pigskin free – in addition to coercing Mertz into making bad throws – if it wants to have a viable shot at winning.

A “Why not us?” mentality

Around the world of college football — and especially in the Big Ten — underdogs have taken on a mean streak of their own.

Last week, unranked Purdue triumphed over No. 3 Michigan State; Sam Howell and the North Carolina Tar Heels dashed No. 9 Wake Forest’s hopes of a perfect season; TCU upset No. 12 Baylor; and Illinois, Tennessee and Arkansas all got in on the fun with wins against favorites. In the prior slate, the then-unranked Badgers themselves dominated No. 2 Iowa; and the Saturday before that, the Illini left Happy Valley with a bizarre, nine-overtime win over No. 7 Penn State.

For Northwestern, the odds of making a bowl game are slim at best given the Wildcats’ arduous upcoming schedule. What’s left for Fitzgerald & Company is to build momentum for next season and to play spoiler to conference foes. If O’Neil’s defense performs as it did against the Hawkeyes — surrendering few enormous plays — and NU can control the ball and the clock, the ‘Cats can certainly tarnish Wisconsin’s Big Ten West title aspirations.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Wisconsin

A whole pack of Badgers running the football

This might as well be engraved into Northwestern’s 2021 tombstone.

If playing the rushing dynamos that hail from Ann Arbor and Minneapolis weren’t enough, how about a formidable unit in Madison, too?

The Badgers, like the Wolverines, have tended to incorporate a two-pronged rushing attack, as both Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen have compiled over 600 yards and five ground touchdowns. However, Allen will presumably become the lead back with Mellusi out for the season with a leg injury, but Wisco still has viable options in Julius Davis and Grover Bortolotti. It should come as little surprise that the Badgers possess a powerful rushing attack given Wisconsin’s propensity to develop backs like Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, James White and many more.

Time and time again, Northwestern has shown an inability to stop the run. Either O’Neil’s group finally makes an adjustment, or the Badgers will be off to the races against a defense yielding over 220 rushing yards per contest.

UW has much more to play for

I mentioned it earlier, but Wisconsin has absolutely caught fire in recent weeks.

After starting 1-3, Chryst’s team was jumpstarted by a 24-0 victory in Champaign, rolling to five straight victories. This Wisconsin team looks nothing like the contingent that was humiliated by Notre Dame and Michigan in late September and early October, respectively.

With Northwestern, Nebraska and Minnesota left on the docket, Wisco undoubtedly has its eyes set on a B1G West crown — a feat for which it should be in the driver’s seat. Considering that UW hasn’t played in Indianapolis since 2019 and hasn’t won a conference title since 2012, the Badgers are ravenous and have shown no signs of slowing down.

Jumping around and over the Wildcats

Since Fitzgerald was announced as NU’s head coach, the Wildcats have posted a respectable 5-6 record when facing Wisconsin.

However, just one of those wins has come as the away team. The year that Northwestern pulled magic out of its hat was 2015, in which the No. 20 ‘Cats beat the No. 25 Badgers 13-7 courtesy of Justin Jackson accumulating 139 rushing yards and a touchdown. Ironically enough, Clayton Thorson tallied just 60 passing yards and a 44.3 QBR on that unprecedented day.

This Wildcats team could post an eerily similar performance this Saturday, with Marty assuming the pedestrian role of Thorson and Evan Hull in place of Jackson. Don’t get your hopes up, though — Wisconsin hasn’t lost to an unranked opponent at home in almost three years.