Fearless prediction: Wisconsin will not have an easy time at Northwestern
Wisconsin’s precarious path to the B1G Championship Game goes through Evanston, a seriously tough place to play for the Badgers of recent ilk.
Road games at Northwestern have rarely gone well for the Badgers over the past 2 decades, so the showdown of unbeaten teams (2:30 CT, ABC) might — unlike No. 10 Wisconsin’s first 2 games — go down to the wire.
With supremacy in the West at stake and the aforementioned B1G title game a mere month away (Dec. 19 in Indianapolis), Wisconsin will need to be in top form against No. 19 Northwestern (4-0).
Taking the national TV stage immediately after the B1G East showdown (Indiana at Ohio State, noon ET, Fox), Wisconsin is not without concerns coming off its 49-11 dismantling of Michigan.
Let’s set the scene.
How they got here
Wisconsin opened up the B1G season on Oct. 23 with a dominant win over Illinois, and the college football world was introduced to redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who set school records in his first start. The celebration was short-lived, however, as the Badgers canceled their next two games due to a coronavirus outbreak. Wisconsin returned to the field on Saturday and hammered Michigan for the second year in a row. The Badgers must win Saturday and avoid further cancelations to stay on track for Indianapolis.
As for Northwestern, it’s doing what a solid program does after an off year. In 2019, a year after winning the B1G West, the Wildcats had their worst record since 2002, finishing 3-9. But through 4 games this year, Northwestern is undefeated — a blowout vs. Maryland followed by one-score wins over Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue. A win Saturday puts the Wildcats clearly in the driver’s seat for the B1G West title (remaining games: at Michigan State, at Minnesota, vs. Illinois — all 1-3 heading into the weekend).
What to watch for
Despite being down two if its top three backs, Wisconsin’s running game operated much better against Michigan than it did against Illinois in the season opener. The Badgers don’t appear to have a dominant, workhorse back on their roster at this moment, but their traditionally strong running game should keep rolling throughout the season. It will face its biggest test of the season against Northwestern, though.
After putting together an incredible performance in Week 1, Mertz came down to earth a bit and looked rusty against Michigan after limited practice time. While the Wisconsin wide receivers haven’t been all that impressive to this point, tight end Jake Ferguson has scored 4 touchdowns and is a go-to option.
Defensively, Wisconsin is allowing 218.5 yards per game, best in all of college football.
Wisconsin does not announce coronavirus cases, but several starters were held out against Michigan for undisclosed reasons, including running back Garrett Groshek, offensive lineman Josh Seltzner, defensive end Garrett Rand, outside linebacker Izayah Green-May and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose.
Some key reserves also were held out against Michigan, and several players got dinged up, including defensive ends Matt Henningsen and James Thompson Jr., safety Eric Burrell, linebacker Mike Maskalunas and wide receiver Kendric Pryor. Depending on who is available, depth could be an issue for the Badgers.
On the Northwestern side, grad transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey continues to prove himself as a solid B1G quarterback. After three years as a starter for Indiana, Ramsey is completing 65.8% of his passes for 723 yards with 6 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. The stats aren’t eye-popping, but he is consistently putting the Wildcats in position to win.
Ramsey will be looking to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, Northwestern’s leading receiver with 18 catches for 195 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Wildcats haven’t run the ball well. Isaiah Bowser will get the majority of the work, but he is averaging just 3 yards per carry.
While the offense has been just about average, Northwestern shines with its defense. With a larger sample size than Wisconsin, the Wildcats are allowing an average of 301.8 yards per game, good for 10th in college football. Northwestern hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in any of its first four games, though it hasn’t seen an offense as good as what the Badgers can bring.
One interesting item to note: Northwestern has dominated this series when the game is played in Evanston. The Badgers are 1-5 in their last six games at Northwestern, winning just once since 1999.
This game is set in a perfect spot for Wisconsin to lose, as it heads to Ryan Field, which has been a dangerous place for the Badgers to play. They are coming off a dominant performance at Michigan and will face traditional rival Minnesota next week, a classic trap-game scenario if not for the stakes at hand. Wisconsin will start out slow and might even be losing at halftime before regaining control and leaving Evanston with a 24-20 victory.