Northwestern is back in action at Ryan Field for the fourth time in five weeks, but the friendly confines haven’t exactly been so for the Wildcats this year. They are 0-3 at home with losses to Duke, Southern Illinois, and Miami (OH), and there’s little reason to suggest things will get better after a fourth straight loss last week. However, there is a chance the ‘Cats may be able to steal a game in conference play going up against a teetering Wisconsin program that just let go of their long-time head coach. Aside from the football weather that’ll hit Evanston on Saturday, here are three reasons the Wildcats will win and three reasons they won’t.
Why Northwestern will beat Wisconsin
Evan Hull is good at football
If you’re a regular reader of this column, then Evan Hull’s name is familiar to you. Heading into last Saturday’s 17-7 loss to Penn State, Hull led the FBS at 170.3 scrimmage yards per game. While the Nittany Lions did shut him down somewhat (Hull took 14 touches for 77 yards), he was still by far Northwestern’s best offensive player in the loss. He’s the team leader in total touches with 128 combined rushes and receptions, and he has used them to great effect. Hull currently sits at 415 rushing yards and 343 receiving yards — no other Wildcat has over 190 rushing yards and Malik Washington only has Hull beat in receiving by four yards. Hull is fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards despite receiving limited action on special teams, showcasing just how talented he is on offense. If Northwestern is to get back into the win column for the first time since August in Ireland, Hull will have to have another sterling performance.
Wisconsin is in chaos
The Badgers’ firing of Paul Chryst following their 34-10 loss to Illinois was a shocker to many, including some on the team. During his tenure at Wisconsin, Chryst led the team to a 67-26 record with three Big Ten West championships, and the Badgers won eight or more games every year but 2020, the shortened season when they went 4-3. Even last season, a comparative down year for the squad with a 9-4 record, the team received AP Poll votes from preseason to Week Four, and then from Week Nine to the closing poll. It has been tougher sledding this year for the Badgers, but all three losses are to teams currently receiving AP votes (No. 3 Ohio State and unranked Washington State and Illinois). The team has greatly struggled offensively against Power 5 competition, but a midseason firing could easily lead to an even further slide for the Badgers, which Northwestern may be able to take advantage of.
The turnover battle
The Wildcats’ defense has been maligned often as of late, but they deserve credit for one thing: they’ve forced one turnover or more in every game except for Miami (OH). In total, Northwestern has garnered five interceptions and five fumble recoveries on the year, and two of those interceptions were key in the August defeat of Nebraska. Wisconsin, conversely, has struggled with ball security, committing eight turnovers on the year (including three in the Illinois loss). While this game won’t be in a monsoon like the Penn State game — when the ‘Cats defense forced five turnovers — a few Wisconsin mistakes could theoretically provide an opportunity for Northwestern to take control of the game.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Wisconsin
Shoddy run defense
If there was one word to describe Northwestern run defense, it would be “yikes.” The Wildcats have given up over 200 rushing yards in three games so far this year, and only Southern Illinois has failed to crack the century mark. When Penn State wasn’t dropping the ball on the turf, their running backs were gashing Northwestern, with Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen both averaging over four yards a carry. Before they were dominated by Illinois’ defense, the Badgers were averaging 211.8 rush yards a game. If Braelon Allen, who’s got 499 yards and six scores on the year, and the rest of the Badgers’ rushing attack can get a bounce-back game, it’ll be a long day for Northwestern fans.
Hilinski is currently fifth in the nation in passing attempts, with 222. He is also currently 19th in the nation in passing yards, with 1429 so far this year. But, his yards per completion and other efficiency stats fail to crack the top 50 in the country, and he's thrown four interceptions this year, which is tied for 14th-most. But perhaps the best way to show how poor Hilinski has been recently is to use his stats from the Penn State game. After he came up just short on a fourth-and-goal, Northwestern got three opportunities to get a drive going. Hilinski went out and did this: incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, incomplete, completion for 20 yards, incomplete, mishandled snap, incomplete, completion for eight yards, incomplete, run for no gain, incomplete. So yeah, the Northwestern offense was given three chances late in the fourth to make a game of it with a top 10 team in the country, and Hilinski went 2-for-10 for 28 yards and nearly lost a fumble. He threw 37 passes in total against the Nittany Lions and completed just 15. On drives immediately following turnovers, Hilinski went 2-for-6 with a fumble lost and an interception. He had a chance to etch his name into Northwestern lore and couldn't do it despite numerous opportunities. At this point, with Northwestern still not having scored more than 24 points in North America, Hilinski’s decision-making is not convincing enough for most to feel confident in a win this weekend.
General offensive ineptitude
It’s not all on Hilinski, of course. There are 11 guys on a football field, and they all deserve some share of the blame. Hull had 45 rushing yards against Penn State. The rest of the offense totaled -14 yards. If turnovers are a flaw for Wisconsin, they’re a self-destruct button for the Wildcats, who have somehow already committed 13 on the year. The team is converting under 35% of its third downs this year, putting it well in the bottom half of the Power 5. They still have not scored 100 total points on the year. Wisconsin has scored nearly 150. The Badgers are also converting over 42% of their third down opportunities and have punted just 18 times, compared to 25 for the Wildcats. Wisconsin is not a good team but it does have a slightly more competent offense, and that could be enough to get them the win.