After a good performance fell just short against a top-10 foe last week, Northwestern gets another chance this weekend when the 8th ranked Wisconsin Badgers come to Ryan Field. Wisconsin has not won in Evanston since 1999, a streak the Badgers will need to snap if they wish to keep their hopes for a Big Ten West title alive. While the odds are slim that the Wildcats win the division, if they are to have any chance, they’ll need a victory tomorrow against the Badgers. Let’s ask three B1G questions (see what I did there?) to get you ready for kick-off.
1. Can the Northwestern Offense Keep It Up?
After a sluggish start to the season (see: 7 points against FCS foe Illinois State), Northwestern’s offense kicked it up a notch during the month of October. While the offense bogged down a bit against both Indiana and Ohio State, the Wildcats scored enough points to hold off the Hoosiers, and stay in the game against the No. 6 Buckeyes. Now, against Wisconsin, the offense will need to continue to deliver if Northwestern wants to pull the upset. Austin Carr has morphed into a super-human pass-catcher, and has been crucial to the offense’s success in 2016. For Northwestern, balance will be key tomorrow. If Northwestern can balance out the workload of its two workhorses: Carr and running back Justin Jackson, they can be successful against Wisconsin. Perhaps even more importantly, Northwestern’s offense has to stay on the field and give their defense time to recover from what will no doubt be a physical battle against the Wisconsin offense. If the time of possession stays even, or even in Northwestern’s favor, the ‘Cats will be feeling good about their chances. However, if Wisconsin dominates possession, they may be able to wear down Northwestern as the afternoon wears on.
2. Can Wisconsin Throw the Ball? Like, At All?
Wisconsin can run the football. There is no question about that. The question for the Badgers will be if they can throw the ball. It’s been a quarterback carousel this year, with both Bart Houston (not actually a Wild West outlaw despite how his name sounds) and Alex Hornibook both getting time under center. Hornibrook seems to have taken hold of the job, and should be the man against Northwestern tomorrow. That said, he hasn’t been particularly impressive this season. If Wisconsin can’t worry Northwestern with their passing attack, the Wildcats will load up the box and make it difficult for Corey Clement and company to find space to run. If Wisconsin can stretch the Wildcat defense, even just a little bit, Clement could see a whole lot of green tomorrow afternoon.
3. Will Wisconsin Need A Wake Up Call? (Other than the one courteously provided by their local hotel)
Last year’s game was weird. I still don’t know what happened. Somehow, some way at the end of the evening, Northwestern walked out of Camp Randall stadium victorious. If not for that, and for the fact that Wisconsin hasn’t won in Evanston this millennium, this game screams “TRAP GAME” for the Badgers. Nothing is more trap gamey than an 11 AM kick-off in sleepy Evanston. I’ve seen many a game where the visitors come to Ryan Field, and it takes them a quarter and a half to wake up. Some, like Indiana, never do. But with the history between these two teams, and Wisconsin staring at a very winnable final 3 games (seriously, this is their most difficult game left this year. They host Illinois and Minnesota and visit Purdue) a run to the Big Ten title game isn’t out of the question. If the Badgers come to play tomorrow, they might be tough to beat. But if they start sluggish, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad won’t hesitate to hit the ground running. Keep an eye on the first few minutes, which could determine the entire afternoon.