By Kevin Sweeney
Camp Randall Stadium is one of the most difficult environments to play at in all of college football, with just over 80,000 Badger fans from Madison and beyond packing the seats when taking on any opponent. That crowd should be even more rowdy than usual when the ‘Cats head to Madison at the end of September in a game with Big Ten West implications.
Fueling that crowd further should be revenge, as the Badgers look to avenge last season’s 31-17 defeat at Ryan Field in a game that propelled Northwestern to a West division championship.
Here’s how the teams match up:
Northwestern Defense vs Wisconsin Offense
At the top of the question marks surrounding this Wisconsin offense is the quarterback battle between junior Jack Coan and highly-touted true freshman Graham Mertz. Coan took over from the since-departed Alex Hornibrook after a midseason injury and played in five games, including starting against Northwestern.
Coan, a high school lacrosse player, was seen as a more mobile quarterback with a big arm but struggled in his time under center last season. Turnovers were an issue, and Coan ran for -33 yards on the season as the Badgers reverted to an even more run-heavy offense than normal. Some improvement should be expected from Coan after being thrown into the fire last season, but his upside seems limited.
Meanwhile, Mertz comes in as the highest-rated quarterback recruit for the Badgers in the 247Sports era, a top-75 recruit who had offers from (insert elite program here). If he lives up to his billing, he could provide an element to the Wisconsin offense that it hasn’t seen in quite some time– a dynamic quarterback who can stretch the field vertically and keep defenses truly off balance. Still, starting a true freshman is rare in college football, and in a system that prioritizes ball control, going with the more established name in Coan seems like the likely outcome.
Either quarterback will share the backfield with perhaps the best running back in college football in Jonathan Taylor, an old-school back who averaged over 7 yards per carry and accumulated more than 2,000 yards on the ground last season. Even if he elects to go pro after this season, he should conclude his career in the top 10 all-time in rush yards in college football history, and two healthy seasons at his current pace would blow fellow Badger Ron Dayne’s record out of the water by close to 1,000 yards.
However, Taylor may not have quite as easy a time tearing apart opposing defenses with four starters on the offensive line gone from last season, a unit that mauled opposing defensive lines time and time again. The Badgers have consistently had strong offensive lines under Paul Chryst, but some regression with an almost entirely new unit should be expected. That can’t be good news for Coan or Mertz either, who may be more relied upon to keep defenses from loading the box against an inexperienced unit.
The good news is whoever winds up under center will have an experienced receiving core to throw to, with WR AJ Taylor and TE Jake Ferguson both reliable targets on third down and in the red zone.
Still, for a team that was one of the most unbalanced in the nation in terms of run to pass ratio last season, success at the quarterback position will be defined by making good decisions and key throws when needed, with the offense heavily reliant on Taylor and Garrett Groshek running behind that new offensive line. Taylor had by far his worst game of the season last year against the Wildcats, rushing for just 46 yards. if the Wildcat front seven can replicate that type of performance, it’s going to be very difficult for the Badgers to move the football.
Northwestern Offense vs Wisconsin Defense
Wisconsin’s best defensive unit last year was its linebacking corps, headlined by leading tacklers TJ Edwards and Ryan Connolly. Both have since graduated, leaving a major hole in the middle of the defense. They also lose star nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, an excellent run-stuffer in the trenches.
However, the Badgers should have solid depth at defensive end, headlined by Garrett Rand. Rand struggled with injuries last season but should be a key contributor against both the run and the pass.
Graduating in the defensive backfield is D’Cota Dixon, who struggled with injuries but was a key contributor throughout his Badger career. Cornerback was a revolving door for Wisconsin last season, which led to some blown coverages throughout the season. Development of the returners at that spot will be critical for this Wisconsin defense. Faion Hicks had plenty of bright spots but perhaps the most mistakes, and he in particular seems like the lynchpin of this Wisconsin secondary. Northwestern wasn’t able to take advantage of the Badger secondary in last year’s meeting, but with a returning group of receivers and Hunter Johnson taking the reigns at QB, I wouldn’t be surprised if Northwestern takes more chances down the field while still relying heavily on running the ball with Isaiah Bowser.
Northwestern 27, Wisconsin 20
Personally, I don’t quite get why some are ranking the Badgers in the preseason. Taylor is amazing, but quarterback and offensive line questions limit the upside of this offense and the defense loses four huge contributors. Wisconsin is a consistently strong program, but this feels closer to the 8-5 Pinstripe Bowl team from last year than a true Big Ten contender.
The only thing giving me pause on my prediction is playing on the road, but given no team has been better on the road than the ‘Cats in the last two seasons, I’ll roll the dice and take my chances with Northwestern in this one.