Staff Predictions: Can Football Keep it Close in Madison?

After a lackluster performance in its Big Ten opener against Michigan State, Northwestern faces a herculean task this weekend as they take on Wisconsin. After a rough 2018, the Badgers have been dominant so far this season, outscoring opponents 145-14 including a 35-14 drubbing of Michigan last week.

Making matters worse, Northwestern will be without captain Bennett Skowronek after the senior wide receiver suffered an undisclosed injury late in the Michigan State game.

Can Northwestern hang around at Camp Randall against a top-10 team? Our staff of writers and broadcasters weigh in:

Kevin Sweeney (@CBB_Central): Wisconsin 30, Northwestern 14

Getting humbled the way the ‘Cats did on Saturday can be a positive long-term if they can use it to refocus. That said, Wisconsin has looked like world-beaters and legit College Football Playoff contenders so far. The ‘Cats will hang in for much of the game, but in the end, a steady dose of Jonathan Taylor wears down the Northwestern defensive front and the Northwestern offense just isn’t explosive enough to put up points consistently against an excellent Badger defense.

Player to Watch: Jack Coan, QB, Wisconsin

Coan got his first career start at Ryan Field last season and really struggled, failing to take care of the football and missing several key throws. This year has been a different story, as the Long Island native has been efficient, accurate, and confident thus far. Northwestern will likely sell out to stop the run and force Coan and the Wisconsin receivers to beat them– how Coan plays will determine whether the ‘Cats have a chance in this one.

Ben Krieger (@thebenkrieger): Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 13

Coming off an embarrassing loss to Michigan State, the Wildcats look to get back on track in a brutal matchup at Camp Randall. Northwestern puts up a much better fight than Michigan did last week, keeping it close until being overcome by the Jump Around frenzy. Despite a decent performance from Hunter Johnson, the Wildcats simply can’t keep up with the Badgers, who look more and more like CFP contenders each week.  

Player to watch: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. 

It’s the easy pick, but it’s not every day Northwestern lines up against a legitimate Heisman candidate. If either Joe Burrow or Jalen Hurts slows down even slightly, Taylor could easily take home the hardware at the end of the season. For Northwestern to have a chance at the upset, they will need to find a way to keep Taylor to a reasonable stat line – maybe 100 yards and a score instead of 200 and two.

Parker Johnson (@ParkerKJohnson): Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 0

Wisconsin shut out its first two opponents this year. The Badgers followed that up by blanking #11 Michigan for nearly three quarters before giving up their first score of the year while already up 35-0 on the Wolverines. You may be saying, “well, Northwestern is closer to Michigan offensively than South Florida or Central Michigan.” Think again. The ‘Cats rank 121st in FBS in total offense, while USF and CMU rank 124th and 112th, respectively. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I expect Wisconsin to make a strong statement of its intent to take back the Big Ten West on Saturday.

Player to watch: Kyric McGowan, WR, Northwestern

If the Wildcats want any chance in this game, it won’t come by trying to pound through the #1 rushing defense in the country. The recipe for success offensively is don’t turn the ball over and hit a couple big plays, and McGowan has been the main downfield option (with varying success) for NU this season.

Eric Rynston-Lobel (@ericr_l): Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 16

The ‘Cats will play better than they did last week, but that’s not saying much.  I suspect the defense especially will be playing with a sense of urgency after its struggles against the Spartans.  The offense, though, will continue to experience major growing pains as Hunter Johnson plays in front of the most raucous crowd he’s ever played against.

Player to Watch: Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern

After the ‘Cats boasted a tremendous linebacking group in Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Nate Hall in 2018, they have struggled this season.  With Hall gone, that leaves a major void that has yet to be filled.  However, Fisher, an All Big Ten honoree last year, needs to play better as a captain of the defense.  This team will win and lose with its defense, and it all starts with Fisher if the ‘Cats want to turn the season around.

Karan Gowda (@DalaiGowda): Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 13

Northwestern’s defense will keep them in the game early with Paddy Fisher and Joe Gaziano looking to stifle Jonathon Taylor early as Taylor hasn’t had the best of times in the last two years against Northwestern. As the game progresses, Jack Coan will find a rhythm with WR Quintez Cephus and start scoring late. 

Dave Peck (@dpeck10): Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 17.

It would be tough for the Wildcats to put up as painful an offensive performance this week as they did versus Michigan State, but I still haven’t seen enough to think they can get the win in Madison. Even with Northwestern’s strong front, Wisconsin’s offense, led by Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor, could be too tall a task.

Players to Watch: Northwestern’s Defense

We’ll always pay close attention to the play of Hunter Johnson, but I’m even more interested to see what kind of defensive scheme Fitz draws up to stop the Badgers offense. Assuming Northwestern focuses its efforts on limiting Taylor, will the junior QB Jack Coan be able to do enough to hurt the Wildcats secondary? I’ll be locked in to Northwestern’s corners, specifically A.J. Hampton, to see if they can hang tough on the outside with most of the attention presumably focused towards the backfield.

Noah Coffman (@Coffman_Noah): Wisconsin 91, Northwestern 11

Player to Watch: Joe Gaziano, DE, Northwestern

Gaziano accounts for all 11 points with a pick-six off a screen and two safeties off of sacks.

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