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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Wisconsin

The Wildcats travel to Madison on Saturday to face off against the Badgers for a marquee Big Ten West showdown.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Last weekend’s matchup against Iowa at Wrigley Field physically hurt to watch. Fans were forced to witness failed drive after failed drive by both teams, as they combined for 17 total points — which the Chicago Cubs eclipsed twice during the 2023 MLB season. Players, coaches and fans are ready to forget about Saturday’s ugly outing and look forward to the coming three weeks.

Fortunately, it is hard to perform worse on offense than Northwestern did on Saturday, in an effort that culminated in just seven points on the board. NU will have to be at the top of its game for the rest of the year, needing two victories over its next three matchups to definitively secure a bowl game.

First up in the Wildcats’ quest for a postseason appearance is a much-anticipated matchup against Wisconsin in Madison. The game is winnable if everybody is at their best. However, if the Wildcats play even remotely similarly to how they did last Saturday, fans could be in for another rough game. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will defeat Wisconsin on Saturday, along with three reasons why the Badgers will come out victorious.

Why Northwestern will beat Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s got a case of the injury bug

As it stands right now, Wisconsin is set to be without two of its key contributors on offense. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who underwent surgery to repair a broken hand he sustained against Iowa on Oct. 14, is currently listed as questionable ahead of Saturday’s matchup. The Badgers are desperately hoping to get him back after having to endure redshirt freshman Braedyn Locke over the last few games. Locke has barely eclipsed a 50% completion percentage over the three full games he’s played, and the team is averaging just 15 points per game with him under center.

Wisconsin could also be without star running back Braelon Allen. This season, Allen has averaged nearly six yards per carry, and his eight touchdowns have powered Wisconsin to the respectable record it has posted so far. Without Mordecai and Allen leading the Badgers’ offense, UW could be in big trouble against Northwestern’s defense.

Northwestern’s defense has been scary as of late

Even if the Wildcats’ offense sputters against Wisconsin, the defense has been quite effective as of late. Over the last four weeks, opponents have put up 20, 17, 27 and 10 points, respectively. Those point totals are low enough to keep the Wildcats in any game, provided that the offense does its job, too.

A huge reason for Northwestern’s defensive renaissance has been defensive lineman Aidan Hubbard, who earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after his three-sack game against Maryland. Largely due to the efforts of Hubbard, plus DL Jaylen Pate and LB Xander Mueller, the front seven has become more formidable as the season has progressed. If he and the rest of the defense continues to play at a high level, Northwestern may just come away with an upset on Saturday.

The Badgers are on a very cold streak

Wisconsin got off to a hot start this year, winning four of its first five games and losing a close matchup to a talented Washington State team. Since then, however, things have gone south for the Badgers. They’ve lost three of their last four, including a particularly ugly loss to Indiana last weekend, not to mention a total offensive collapse against Iowa in which they only mustered six points. All the momentum is currently trending downward for Wisconsin.

Though Northwestern is coming off its own brutal defeat to Iowa, it has generally exceeded expectations this year, and spirits are high among the team and fans alike. At 4-5 with three games to go, NU is close to qualifying for its first bowl game since 2020. The general tone around the program is optimistic right now, and, combined with the downward spiral Wisconsin has found itself in over the last month, the Wildcats may have the emotional advantage necessary to eke out a win.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Wisconsin

Who the heck is under center for the ‘Cats?

Northwestern’s quarterback situation right now is about as uncertain as it could possibly be. Ben Bryant’s status is still up in the air as he continues to nurse an upper body injury he sustained against Penn State. Bryant is theoretically the best quarterback on the roster when healthy. However, he would undoubtedly be rusty, as over a month has now passed since he last took the field.

The other option is Brendan Sullivan, who has taken over the reins for the past month. Sullivan showed flashes of excellence in an underdog victory over Maryland. Aside from that, though, he has otherwise been lackluster. Sullivan is not the ideal choice for this week, but if Bryant’s injury continues to nag at him, David Braun may not have a choice but to start his backup.

The offensive line continues to sputter

In what has been one of the main themes of this team all year, Northwestern’s offensive line struggled once again at Wrigley. The unit allowed Sullivan to get sacked five times against Iowa, whose defense ranks ninth in the Big Ten in terms of sacks. Wisconsin ranks sixth in that category, which does not bode well for NU.

Who ultimately plays quarterback for the Wildcats this weekend will not matter if the men in the trenches can’t give him ample time to get the ball out to Northwestern’s weapons, who have performed well given the situation they’re in. Simply put, the offensive line must be better, or else fans could be in for another five-sack game in Madison.

History does not favor the Wildcats

Historically, Northwestern vs Wisconsin has been a fairly one-sided rivalry. All time, Wisconsin is 62-37-5 against the Wildcats. Additionally, Northwestern has lost three of the last four matchups, including 35-7 and 42-7 routs in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Last year in particular was a game to forget, with Ryan Hilinski only completing 10 passes and throwing two interceptions before leaving the game due to injury, and Sullivan making his collegiate debut.

Now, all of this is not to say that Northwestern will lose solely because it has lost in the past. However, the general trend of Wisconsin dominance over the last few years, combined with NU’s quarterback conundrum and issues with the offensive line, is certainly something to be concerned about. There is a very real possibility of history repeating itself once again if Northwestern lacks stability in these areas.