This past Saturday, Northwestern dropped its third straight game, this time to the Iowa Hawkeyes. Now, the ‘Cats will travel north to Madison to take on one of the hottest teams in college football in the Wisconsin Badgers. The two teams have gone back and forth these past few years, with NU winning the most recent matchup last season. Here are three things to know about Wisconsin.
The Badgers love to run the ball
Graham Mertz was supposed to be the biggest thing in college football last year, especially after hanging five touchdowns on Illinois in week one of the shortened 2020 season. Since then, however, in the subsequent 15 games, Mertz has thrown a total of 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Instead, the recipe for success for the Badgers has been keeping the ball on the ground.
The backfield is led by Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen, both of whom rank top 10 in the conference in rushing yards and touchdowns. In last week’s 52-3 beatdown over Rutgers, Wisconsin ran for over 300 yards on 48 attempts. The running game has proven crucial for the Badgers in turning their season around after suffering early losses to Notre Dame and Michigan, as they’ve leaned on Mellusi and Allen to propel them to five consecutive wins.
Northwestern will have to stop the ground attack and force Mertz to make plays through the air if it wants to have any chance of winning this game.
Its defense is elite
Wisconsin is known for producing defenses that year-in year-out rank atop the conference and the nation, and this year is no exception. Anchored by senior linebacker Jack Sanborn, Jim Leonhard’s defense ranks first in the nation in total defense, surrendering just 214 yards per game and under four yards per play.
Historically, showdowns between the Wildcats and the Badgers are characterized by stout defenses and ball control. Northwestern will need to do a better job running the football compared to last year’s matchup if the Cats are going to leave Madison with a win. Northwestern was held to 24 rushing yards on 23 attempts in the last meeting and relied on Peyton Ramsey to make plays through the air for much of that contest.
Playing at Camp Randall = advantage Wisconsin
Camp Randall is no doubt one of the toughest environments to play in for any visiting team in college football. Aside from that mildly cool “Jump Around” thing that those kids do up there, the Badgers play excellent football at home. Since 2014, Wisconsin is 40-9 at home, which is the second-best home record in the Big Ten. Only Ohio State flaunts a better record.
That home field advantage definitely comes to life in head-to-head matchups with the ‘Cats. In the last 15 matchups between Northwestern and Wisconsin, Northwestern has gone into Camp Randall and taken down Wisconsin just twice. In 2000, on their way to a share of the B1G Title, the ‘Cats escaped with a 47-44 double overtime win. The other time was a 13-7 victory in 2015, the lone win in Madison in the Fitz era.
The Badgers’ 1-3 start continues to fade further into the rearview mirror as the Big Ten West Division title comes further into view. Fitz and Co. will have their hands full trying to slow down Bucky on Saturday.