A surging Wisconsin welcomes Northwestern to Camp Randall this weekend. The Badgers, who are 6-3 and tied for first in the Big Ten West, are hoping to take their next step towards the conference title game. On the other hand, the 3-6 Wildcats have very little left to play for. While they could still achieve bowl game eligibility by winning out, Northwestern will most likely be playing the role of spoiler for the rest of the season. Upsetting a top 25 team at home would certainly give the Wildcat faithful something to cheer for. With no room for error, Wisconsin can not take any opponent lightly, making this game just as important as any left on the schedule.
What’s on the Line for Wisconsin?
After a rocky 1-3 start, Wisconsin has found their rhythm over the course of a 5 game winning streak. Quarterback Graham Mertz has limited mistakes, the run game has found new life, and the defense is still one of the top tier units in the country. What looked like a disastrous season now sees the Badgers with a legitimate chance to make the Big Ten title game. However, with 4 teams tied at the top of the West with a 4-2 record, every game is crucial, so head coach Paul Chryst will have to ensure his team comes ready to play.The game plan likely remains the same: control the clock, run the ball, wreak havoc on defense.
While the passing attack has been lackluster at best for the number 18 team in the country, running the ball has been anything but a problem. Running backs Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen have combined for 1,476 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 226 carries, which amounts to roughly 5.5 yards a carry. Mertz has contributed 4 rushing TD’s of his own, and of the teams 26 total offensive touchdowns, 19 have come on the ground. Add in the number 1 (yes, even better than Georgia’s) team defense in the country, and Wisconsin is capable of dominating time of possession.
Northwestern has given up 200 or more rushing yards in 5 games this season, including a staggering 427 yards to Nebraska, so expect more of the same offensively come Saturday. There is nothing to suggest a change in play calling would be neccessary, so unless Northwestern can consistently contain the run early, we will most likely see a heavy dose of Mellusi and Allen once again. Although the run game will be the feature, Wisconsin fans would like to see Graham Mertz be slightly more efficient through the air. The starting QB’s completion percentage sits at 56.3% and he only averages 6.8 yards per attempt. Those numbers will need to come up if Wisconsin hopes to win the conference.
What Northwestern can do to Pull off the Upset
The Wildcats come into Madison, Wisconsin on a three game losing streak. However, they may have just played their best game of the season, taking number 22 Iowa down to the wire in a 17-12 loss. Quarterback has proven to be the biggest issue for Northwestern throughout the year, as three different players have attempted 75 or more passes. This inconsistency has plagued the offense, which is 120th in the country in points per game at 18.2. While Senior Andrew Marty has shown flashes of talent, throwing for 363 yards and four touchdowns over the last two games, his three interceptions against Iowa played a large role in the loss. He will likely get the start again on Saturday, but it would not be surprising to see Ryan Hillinski or Hunter Johnson take over if the offense sputters.
On the defensive side of the ball, an inconsistent unit will look to harness the run game. If the defense can force Wisconsin into obvious passing situations and make Graham Mertz beat them, the Northwestern has a shot to make this a game. Mertz has struggled with the game on his shoulders, and is prone to making mistakes when he is forced to throw the ball downfield. Coming off a solid performance against the Hawkeyes could provide a confidence boost for a struggling group. Northwestern held the Hawkeyes to just 2-14 on 3rd down, and allowed only three points in the second half. If the defense can bail the offense out with a few key stops, and maybe even create a turnover or two, Northwestern could be in a position to pull off the upset.
While this has been a truly crazy year in college football packed with upsets on a weekly basis, Wisconsin should have no problem securing a win at home this week. This team has everything to play for, is riding high on a five game winning streak, and has truly found its identity. On top of that, Wisconsin excels everywhere Northwestern struggles. While Northwestern has one of the worst scoring offenses in the country, Wisconsin has one of the best defense. Northwestern struggles to stop the run, while Wisconsin features two dynamic running backs. The Wildcats have an outside shot if they can get decent quarterback play and a few big defensive plays, but expect the Badgers to roll in Camp Randall and pick up the win, 31-10.
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