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Three matchups to watch against Wisconsin

Many of the same faces, except for one tiny change.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Both Wisconsin and Northwestern are in the midst of seasons that they’ve packed to the brim with turbulence. The 2-3 Badgers are coming off a 24-point blowout at home to Illinois last Saturday. The day after, they thrust defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard into an interim head coach role after firing Paul Chryst, who won 67 games and six bowl games in seven full seasons with Wisconsin.

The 1-4 ‘Cats aren’t faring much better, though they did hang around against No. 10 Penn State on the road in a game most expected to be a blowout. The Big Ten West rivals should put on a defensive slugfest for Homecoming Weekend, making every point and big play all the more important.

Jim Leonhard vs. Mike Bajakian

After a solid defensive start, the Badgers have given up 86 combined points to Ohio State and Illinois in the last two weeks. There’s no doubt Leonhard’s scheme is excellent; Wisconsin’s defense had the nation’s second-best S&P+ rating in 2021. So, what’s the problem? Through the first half of the season, it’s been his front seven’s lack of pressure.

Northwestern has actually given up fewer sacks than the majority of the Big Ten, and Peter Skoronski’s presence effectively takes the blind side out of the equation. Add that to the fact that Leonhard now has to make offensive scheme adjustments and rally his troops, and this game could be up for grabs.

That is, if Mike Bajakian can free up his playmakers. NU’s undermanned defense forced five turnovers on Saturday and handed the upset on a silver platter to the offense, but Bajakian’s unit only managed a touchdown. The only other Big Ten team to do that since 2000 is Iowa, who won 6-4 at Penn State in 2004. Granted, the weather didn’t help, but Bajakian hasn’t gotten Evan Hull as involved in the offense as much as he did in the first two games. It was especially surprising that Hull only toted the rock 11 times on that rainy day in Happy Valley. He’ll have to be much more involved in the gameplan for the Wildcats to prevail this weekend.

Peter Skoronski vs. Nick Herbig

Herbig, an AP Preseason Second-Team All-American, will easily be the most talented edge rusher to face Skoronski thus far in 2022. He started off hot, racking up four sacks in his first three games (which is still good enough for second in the conference). But his performance dipped along with Wisconsin’s defense as a whole against Illinois and Ohio State, as both teams were able to hold him in check. Nevertheless, Herbig is Leonhard’s primary pass-rushing weapon — he almost has as many sacks and pressures as the rest of the team combined.

Despite Northwestern’s offensive struggles, Skoronski has been quietly playing himself into top-10 draft conversations. The Nittany Lions tried to wear him out by throwing a rotation of pass-rushers at him from different directions, but the star left tackle held up well for the most part. Herbig mostly attacks from the weak side, so the two should engage in some exciting one-on-one combat.

Braelon Allen vs. Bryce Gallagher

While Gallagher hasn’t been especially great in pass coverage, he played the best game of his career in purple against Penn State. He forced a fumble, recorded his first career interception and added 12 tackles — many of which stifled Penn State’s talented backfield for short gains.

Fortunately for Gallagher, he will likely get to hone in on shutting down the run again because Wisconsin’s passing offense is suboptimal. Through five games, Graham Mertz’s expected points added (EPA) as a passer sits at 6.7. That’s the lowest total of all Big Ten West quarterbacks not named Spencer Petras, and it doesn’t even crack the FBS’s top 100.

Enter Braelon Allen. He has enjoyed a solid start to his sophomore season, as he racked up 165 yards on 23 carries against the Buckeyes. However, the Illini held him to just two yards on eight carries last weekend. The ‘Cats are capable of holding him in check, as their strong effort against Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen demonstrated. But Gallagher and NU’s run defense at the second level has been inconsistent all season. If these teams’ matchup at Camp Randall last year revealed anything, it’s that giving Allen room to operate at the line of scrimmage is a game of Russian roulette.