We’ve got an exciting Lake Michigan rivalry game to start off Big Ten play tomorrow, as Northwestern (2-1) heads up the lake shore to battle No. 10 Wisconsin (3-0) in Camp Randall Stadium. Both teams are coming off of the bye week after enjoying terrific week three victories, the Wildcats over Bowling Green and the Badgers over BYU. The two teams have played each other extremely tough in the last couple of years. In 2016, Wisconsin came to Evanston and gutted out a 21-7 victory over the Wildcats. The year before though, Northwestern stormed into Camp Randall and stole a 13-7 win in Madison. This week’s game looks to be a battle between two of the best teams in the Big Ten West, so here are five things to watch for:
Can the Wildcats establish the run?
Here’s a breakdown of Northwestern’s rushing attack so far this season. In week one’s close victory over Nevada, the Wildcats rushed for 156 yards on 50 carries (3.1 yards per attempt). In week two’s blowout loss to Duke, Northwestern toted the rock 21 times for 22 yards (1.1 yards per attempt). In week three’s thrashing of Bowling Green, the ‘Cats produced 303(!) yards on 43 carries (7.1 yards per attempt). Those splits are pretty drastic. When Justin Jackson and the rest of the Wildcats’ rushing attack play well, Northwestern performs well. Wisconsin has only allowed 90.8 yards per game on the ground, so the ‘Cats have their work cut out for them.
The health and effectiveness of Northwestern’s secondary
It’s no secret: Northwestern’s greatest weakness this year is the secondary. That’s in no way a knock on the talent the Wildcats have assembled on the back end, but simply a reflection of the fact that the depth chart has been decimated by injury this year. Northwestern will be without Keith Watkins II for the rest of the year, and the “next man up” has been more like “next men up” as players like Marcus McShepard, Trae Williams, and Brian Bullock have all missed at least one game already. Right now, the ‘Cats depth chart for Saturday lists Montre Hartage and Trae Williams as the first team corners, with Moe Almasri and Marcus McShepard on the second team. Northwestern will need all four (and maybe more) to stay on the field if they have any hope of winning.
Jonathan Taylor (and the rest of the Badgers’ rushing attack)
The Badgers offense flows through the run game, and this year the face of that rushing attack is freshman phenom Jonathan Taylor. Taylor, who came into camp this summer buried on the depth chart, quickly climbed to the top and took over, rushing for 438 yards on 53 carries through the Badgers’ three games. That’s good for 8.3 yards per carry and 146 yards per game, and let’s not forget the five touchdowns he’s scored. Taylor has, quite frankly, been a beast. And the rest of the Badgers have have contributed another 388 yards, giving the team a whopping 275.3 yards per game on the ground. If you want to beat Wisconsin, you have to beat them in the trenches. We’ll see early on if the Wildcats are up to the task.
The Skowronek/Dickerson Duo
Northwestern’s sophomore receiver and senior superback have been excellent this year, combining to produce 26 catches for 406 yards through three games. The duo especially impressed against Bowling Green, with 150 yards from Dickerson and two touchdowns from Skowronek. The one area where Wisconsin has looked vulnerable this season is in the secondary, so these two could be difference makers on Saturday.
The third phase of the game isn’t always the most exciting, but it will be crucial on Saturday. These two teams are close enough in talent that the game should be gritty and close, meaning every inch matters. Northwestern has had the edge here over Wisconsin so far this year, as Charlie Kuhbander is 2-3 on field goals and Hunter Niswander has averaged an impressive 49.5 yards per punt. If the ‘Cats can control the flow of the game by pinning Wisconsin’s offense deep and finishing drives with points, they just might be able to repeat the result from 2015 and come away from Camp Randall with an upset victory.