By Nick Scoliard
Do you like defense? Well, I have a game for you! When Northwestern travels to Madison on Saturday, the scoreboard will be low. You can pick whatever stats you want to show how good these defense are.
Yards allowed per game? The Badgers are 3rd with 272, and the ‘Cats are 18th with 320.
Points against per game? Wisconsin’s the best in the nation with 12.3, with NU right behind at 12th with 17.6.
Like your stats a little more advanced? FPI ranks Northwestern as the 8th best defense in the country, while Wisconsin comes in at 20th.
FPI probably likes Northwestern better because it treats the 6 points against Stanford as godly and gives NU more leeway in giving up 38 and 40 points to Michigan and Iowa respectively. Either way, it’s easy to see that points will be at a premium, and the first team to get a lead could breeze right into a win. Let’s break down how Wisconsin matches up against the Wildcats.
Here’s what I said about Joel Stave in my Wisconsin season preview article:
Joel Stave now officially takes over the QB spot, moving Tanner McEvoy to safety and WR. Stave was competent enough during his play, gaining 6.6 yards per attempt, but he had a bad 9/10 TD/INT rate. Now with the full confidence of the team behind him, he should play more like his 2013 season, where he posted a 7.4 Y/A and a 62% completion percentage.
Stave’s numbers this season: 7.4 Y/A and 61% completion percentage! But before you accuse me of being psychic, his TD/INT ratio is 10 to 8. That’s still an improvement over 9 to 10, but it doesn’t instill much hope. However, with Wisconsin’s defense, Stave just has to be competent, which he definitely has been. He’s also had help, with Alex Erickson, who led the team in yards in 2014. He’s well ahead of the pack again this season with 831 receiving yards. Corey Clement was supposed to be the heir apparent to Melvin Gordon at the beginning of the season, but a groin injury in their opener against Alabama stopped those thoughts. Instead junior Dare Ogunbowale has impressed, getting 144 carries for 612 yards. Sure, he isn’t the next Melvin Gordon, but he’s been able to move the offense along, and score 6 TDs along the way. Wisconsin has won games through their defense, but don’t be surprised if this offense fights with the ‘Cats a little.
If I told you last year that Tanner McEvoy leads the team in interceptions, you’d probably think that’s normal for a QB and he should be benched for Stave. But in 2015, Wisconsin fans couldn’t be happier, as McEvoy has switched to the other side of the ball, and now harasses other QBs as a free safety. He joined a very strong backfield, with Michael Caputo as the strong safety, and Darius Hilary and Sojourn Shelton at the corners. This is a squadron led by their secondary, which excels at putting the fear in opposing quarterbacks. What sets Wisconsin apart from other Big Ten Teams, however, is their 3-4 defense. It’s usually hard to do because of the emphasis on a nose tackle, one of the hardest body types to find (A 325, 6 ft 3 guy who’s got footwork like a ballerina). The SEC can get away with recruiting them, but its much harder to do for top Big ten schools, let along for the Purdues and Rutgers of the conference. What this means for Northwestern is there will be less interior pressure (with the down lineman playing two-gap) but more outside pressure with the threat of UW’s OLBs Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. Northwestern’s tackles will have their hands full this game, and the lack of other 3-4 opponents could give Wisconsin the edge.
Before the season, this looked like Northwestern’s hardest game by far. Now after Stanford, Michigan, and Iowa, this seems less true. Even though both teams are most likely out of Big ten West championship contention , the winner of this game will probably get a better bowl placement, which could be the difference between 20 degree snowing New York and the tropical paradise of California and Florida.