4 things to watch in Northwestern vs. Wisconsin
By Ryan Choe
The ‘Cats emerged from West Lafayette, Indiana last weekend with a victory over Purdue to remain undefeated. At the halfway point of the season, Northwestern faces Wisconsin, its toughest opponent yet, in a game that could very well decide the Big Ten West title. Here are four key things to watch for this weekend.
1. Peyton Ramsey vs Graham Mertz
In a game where the rushing attack failed to develop, graduate-transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey was handed the keys to the offense and didn’t disappoint. Ramsey completed 23 of 36 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns. He also chipped in 21 rushing yards and overcame an interception in the second quarter to help lead the ‘Cats to a win.
While Purdue’s sophomore wide receiver David Bell received the most attention coming into the game, it was senior wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman who had a career-best performance. With only a single career receiving touchdown (which came in 2017) coming into week four, Chiaokhiao-Bowman erupted for career highs in receptions (8), yards (86) and touchdown receptions (3) against the Boilermakers. Only time will tell if this type of connection between Ramsey and Chiaokhiao-Bowman is legitimate or not.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s first-year quarterback Graham Mertz is coming off a game against Michigan where he barely completed over 50% of his 22 passes, but found the end zone twice. Mertz, one of the highest-rated players in the high school class of 2020, has found early success in his young career after filling in for senior Jack Coan — Wisconsin’s projected starting quarterback before he suffered a broken foot ahead of the season. Mertz had a historic performance in week one against Illinois, completing 20 of his 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. With such a small sample size, it’s hard to tell how good Mertz is, but he has been impressive through the two games he’s played.
Northwestern and Wisconsin each boast a high-quality quarterback, and it will be interesting to see how much of a difference experience makes on Saturday. Ramsey and Mertz will face two of the stingiest defenses in the country, and Mertz has yet to throw an interception. It will be important to watch which quarterback limits mistakes and also how each bounces back from them.
2. The Northwestern defense
Northwestern’s defense continued its display of excellence, holding Purdue to just two total rushing yards, forcing a pair of fumbles and getting four tackles for loss (including three sacks). Sadly, the ‘Cats two impressive defensive streaks — (1) not giving up any points in the second half of games and (2) forcing at least two turnovers per game — came to an end against Purdue. However, junior defensive back Greg Newsome II and the rest of the secondary did a great job covering the Boilermakers’ lethal wide receivers.
If there was one area of concern for the ‘Cats defense against Purdue, it was the 40-yard touchdown it gave up in the second quarter. If the ‘Cats aren’t careful, this crack could be heavily exploited by a dangerous Wisconsin offense. The Badgers’ running game, similar to Northwestern, is the key to their success on offense. The Badgers practically ran Michigan out of its home stadium in week four, running the ball for 341 total yards and five total touchdowns on 51 attempts. Although the Northwestern defense has been respectable against the run so far this season, it is essential that it contains the Wisconsin rushing attack this week. That starts with dominating the trenches.
Wisconsin has a track record of generating a wealth of high-caliber NFL offensive lineman (Joe Thomas, Travis Frederick, Kevin Zeitler, Rob Havenstein and Ryan Ramczyk to name a few). The offensive line is consistently a strength for the Badgers, and this year is no exception. Not only will Northwestern’s defense have to contain the run, but its pass rush must apply pressure to Mertz whenever the Badgers throw the ball. If Mertz has a clean pocket and little pressure, he will have plenty of time to find an open receiver somewhere on the field. However, this could be a tall task for the ‘Cats’ defense as it barely has more sacks than Wisconsin’s despite playing two more games. Don’t be surprised if Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line finds a way to keep the Northwestern front seven quiet this weekend.
After having two streaks broken and giving up its biggest touchdown so far this season, the ‘Cats defense will be determined to rebound. However, Wisconsin has the firepower to rack up a lot of points, and Northwestern’s defense didn’t do itself any favors by giving up some big plays to Purdue in week four.
3. The Northwestern running backs vs Wisconsin’s front seven
Mike Bajakian’s run attack had its worst performance of the year in week four, recording 80 total yards and zero touchdowns on 40 attempts. It was the first time the ‘Cats failed to rush for over 100 yards this season. Northwestern’s running backs will have to turn this trend around, especially as they face a Wisconsin defense filled with fast and talented linebackers and defensive lineman. The Badgers held Michigan to 47 total rushing yards in week four, although Illinois rushed for over 130 total yards in week one. Sophomore linebacker Leo Chenal and first-year linebacker Nick Herbig form a formidable defense for the Badgers, and Wisconsin’s front seven could make life difficult for the Northwestern running backs.
The ‘Cats will need more positive contributions from junior Isaiah Bowser, senior Kyric McGowan, sophomore Drake Anderson, senior Jesse Brown and anyone else to have a chance to upset Wisconsin. Without establishing this part of their offensive identity, the ‘Cats will struggle to create long scoring drives.
4. Which team can avoid turnovers and penalties?
‘Cats quarterback Peyton Ramsey is currently averaging one interception per game. While some of these interceptions came from bad luck, he cannot afford to commit any turnovers against a high-quality team like Wisconsin. The same goes for the Northwestern running backs and receivers. Meanwhile, Mertz and Wisconsin only have a single turnover this season: a fumble in week one against Illinois. If Northwestern can avoid committing turnovers and force Wisconsin into coughing up the football, the chance of a ‘Cats victory greatly increases.
Northwestern also needs to stay disciplined against Wisconsin, as it already has 26 penalties for 216 yards so far this season. Contrastingly, the Badgers only have 5 penalties for 25 yards. The ‘Cats must avoid costly mistakes this week in order to pull off an upset.
The ‘Cats are in prime position this week to remain the only undefeated team in the Big Ten West. However, doing so is no small task. Although the Badgers have only played two games so far this season, they showed little rust in their annihilation of Michigan. Northwestern must dominate the run game on both sides of the ball, avoid costly turnovers and penalties, and put pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz in order to improve to 5-0. My prediction is that Mertz and an imposing defense lead Wisconsin to a victory and hand the ‘Cats their first loss of the season.
Score prediction: Badgers win, 35-21
Bold prediction: Northwestern fails to force a single turnover for the first time this season.