The Northwestern Wildcats came so close to a huge upset victory at Ohio State last week, but even after dropping to 4-4 on the year, the ‘Cats have to be pleased with their 3-1 October. Now, they have to be pumped for a chance to beat a top-10 team on their home field. Here are three things that need to happen if the ‘Cats are going to pull off the upset against Wisconsin this Saturday:
1) Force the Badgers to throw the ball
Wisconsin has two options, and they’re…uh…not good. The senior Bart Houston is basically a career backup, and he couldn’t stick in a starting role this year. Freshman Alex Hornibrook is probably worse. He has six touchdowns and seven interceptions on the year, and has no more than 214 yards in any game this year. That includes games against Michigan State and Iowa, who gave up 94 points to Northwestern this year.
Wisconsin is clearly a running team, and that’s not a secret. Corey Clement is a solid every-down back, and while he may not be a top running back in the FBS, his best game of the year came against Ohio State. Dare Ogunbowale had a monster game last week against Nebraska, and he provides a nice change-of-pace option as well.
The Northwestern run defense has had an inconsistent year, where they haven’t lived up to the reputation of last year’s group, but they’ve seemed to work out some of their early-season issues. Regardless, against that powerful Wisconsin offensive line the ‘Cats shouldn’t be thrilled by the prospect of a run-heavy game.
The best-case scenario for Northwestern is to plug the gaps up front, and focus most of their defensive energy in containing that Wisconsin running game. They can live with some more one-on-one matchups outside and force the Badger quarterbacks to step up and make plays. If they make Houston and Hornibrook step up and carry the offense, the ‘Cats have a much better chance of staying competitive in this game.
2) Let Thorson carry the offense
Coming into the season, this certainly didn’t seem like it would ever be the plan. Thorson was an inconsistent quarterback with limited experience struggling to complete half of his passes, and the ‘Cats have a tank of a running back in Justin Jackson. But with how things have shaken out this season and with this particular matchup, it’s time to ride the Clayton train.
Thorson is in the midst of a breakout year, but even then it seems strange to think he should be the offensive focal point over Jackson. This isn’t a knock against Jackson: he’s been solid all year, but Thorson has been equally, if not more, important to the offense this year.
The ‘Cats also have to consider the dominance of the Wisconsin run defense. They’re allowing 109 rushing yards per game this season, the best in the Big Ten. It may not be smart to lean on Jackson as much as the ‘Cats have been used to in the past. Although it strays away from the Northwestern/Big Ten football mantra, the ‘Cats should rely on Clayton Thorson and the passing attack more than the running game.
3) Contain Wisconsin’s pass rush
Keeping Thorson out of pressure was a huge problem for the ‘Cats earlier this year. They allowed 15 sacks in their first four games, and Thorson was frequently scrambling away from a collapsing pocket. That really changed during the Iowa game, and in their last four games Thorson has only been sacked five times.
Seeing which version of the offensive line shows up will be interesting to watch, as the Badgers have one of the better pass rushes in the Big Ten. Led by T.J. Watt and his seven sacks, Wisconsin has 20 sacks on the year, the third-most in the conference. If Thorson is being heavily pressured, the plan in step no. 2 takes a huge hit and the ‘Cats will have to try to run through that brick wall of a run defense.
Their entire offensive gameplan will revolve around their ability to stop the pass rush. If that falls apart, things could spiral out of control quickly and the offense would look inept. But if it holds up like it has the last four weeks, the ‘Cats have a reasonable path to a successful offensive performance.