Opponent Preview: Wisconsin
By Max Rogal
In week 11, Northwestern will make the trip to Madison for a huge road test against Wisconsin. The Badgers are the only other team to win a Big Ten West title in the past five years, but they’re coming off an up-and-down transition year in 2020. After winning their first two games by a combined score of 94-18, the Badgers ran into Northwestern, who held them to just 7 points and pulled off an upset win. They would lose their next two games to Indiana and Iowa before ending the season on a high note, beating Minnesota in a rescheduled game on championship weekend and claiming a win in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl to cap it off.
This year’s Badger team, ranked No. 12 in the AP preseason poll, looks much improved and poised to challenge for the Big Ten championship. With an elite defense and a more experienced Graham Mertz under center, there are a lot of reasons for optimism in Madison. On the road this year, the Badgers will be a much tougher matchup, but one that the ‘Cats will need to win if they want to repeat as division champs.
Keys to the Game:
Northwestern forced five turnovers in its matchup with Wisconsin last year, and the ‘Cats will need to rely on their defense to disrupt Mertz and the Badger offense if they want to win this game. Look for preseason All-American Brandon Joseph to be all over the place in the defensive backfield; he has the ability to make game-changing plays that could propel Northwestern to a win.
Finding an offensive spark:
Northwestern has question marks all over its offense, especially now with first-choice back Cam Porter out for the year due to injury. What we do know, at least, is that former five-star Clemson recruit Hunter Johnson will get the first crack at the starting QB job. By week 11, it could still be Johnson at QB, or perhaps new South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski. Regardless of the starting QB, it’s still unclear who will give Northwestern its offensive spark this season. Expect a rotating cast of skill position players and for offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian to mix things up to generate a few big plays.
Prediction: Wisconsin 20, Northwestern 14
I expect this game to stay close, but ultimately Wisconsin should win. The Badgers have the talent and experience advantage and are also playing at home. Of course, a lot can change between now and November, but right now, I can’t quite convince myself to be more optimistic.