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Much of the talk entering the contest has surrounded Wisconsin’s ability to force turnovers at a high rate since the Purdue game, Braelon Allen’s continued emergence, Graham Mertz’s improvement and the play of the offensive line. Notice: all of that talk has been positive, as this Wisconsin team seems to be peaking at the right time.
Unfortunately, the program received unfortunate news this week as it was announced that starting running back Chez Mellusi will miss the remainder of the season. The Badgers will now have to go to some combination of Allen, Julius Davis, Brady Schipper and Jackson Acker in the backfield for the rest of 2021.
The injury aside, Wisconsin still has a favorable matchup against Northwestern on Saturday. Here are five keys to a Badger victory:
Run the dang ball.
Oct 30, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) rushes with the football during the third quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The Northwestern rush defense Wisconsin will face Saturday is not the same one that held the Badgers in check on the ground in each of their last two meetings.
2019: Northwestern allows 137.4 yards per game on the ground, 3.8 yards per carry. Wisconsin rushes for 133 yards on 33 carries in the contest.
2020: Northwestern allows 145.9 yards per game on the ground, 4.5 yards per carry. Wisconsin rushes for 136 yards on 40 carries in the contest.
Neither of those contests were awful by any stretch for the Badgers, though they did not see the team dominate on the ground. It’s been a theme as of late when these two teams meet: both are physical matches in the trenches and neither has much rushing success.
This year that is not entirely the case. Wisconsin has improved its rushing attack tremendously since its win streak began—that thanks to improved play from the offensive line and the emergence of freshman Braelon Allen.
Necessary to note: things do change with the news Chez Mellusi will miss the remainder of the season after suffering an injury against Rutgers. Though Wisconsin should still be able to take advantage of Saturday’s matchup.
It’s a matchup against a Northwestern defense that allows 226.2 yards per game on the ground and 5.5 yards per carry. Yes, a lot of that production came with Kenneth Walker, Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins running the football. But the entire body of work is still concerning from a Wildcat point of view, especially given how the Badgers have trended on the ground.
Going further into the numbers, Northwestern ranks No. 113 nationally in EPA/Rush and No. 110 in success rate against the rush. What do those numbers tell us? The team as a whole just isn’t effective stopping teams on the ground.
A note: Linebackers Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin are players to look out for on the opposing unit—the two combining for 177 tackles, 8 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks this season.
So key No. 1 for Wisconsin should be relying on the ground game all afternoon. We’ve seen over the last few weeks what the offense can be when the ground game is effective from the start, especially with getting Graham Mertz into favorable passing downs and positions to make plays.
#Badgers rush splits this szn:
In Ls: 18car 291yds, 2.46ypc
In Ws: 309car, 1712yds, 5.54ypc
Many factors play a part obviously, including strong Ds, no B. Allen to start the yr. But…
Mertz in those Ls: 48/93 (51.6%), 540yds, 2TD, 6int
In Ws: 59/93 (63.4%), 749yds, 4TD, 2int
— Ben Kenney (@benzkenney) November 11, 2021
Luckily for the Badgers, this matchup sets up to allow that rushing success to continue.
Steer clear of Brandon Joseph
Nov 21, 2020; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Brandon Joseph (16) gestures after intercepting against the Wisconsin Badgers during the first half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Brandon Joseph had a day against Graham Mertz and the Badgers last season, recording 7 tackles and intercepting Mertz twice.
He’s the playmaker that has the most explosive potential on this Northwestern defense with 2 interceptions, 3 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery and 68 tackles on the season.
The defense as a whole allows passing offenses to find some success, ranking No. 64 nationally in success rate allowed in that area. However, the unit ranks No. 23 nationally in EPA/Pass.
What does that mean? The group gives up some successful plays, though has shown an ability to make timely stops, create turnovers and disrupt opposing offenses in that area.
Brandon Joseph is a big reason behind those splits. He’s somebody who Wisconsin must keep off the stat sheet Saturday, especially in the turnover department.
Convert quality drives into points
Nov 6, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) drops back to pass as Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive lineman Julius Turner (50) defends during the first half at SHI Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
One of the biggest areas that’s plagued the Wisconsin offense this season is converting quality drives into points (see: Penn State Week 1 as the biggest example). What’s a quality drive? A first down past the opponents’ 40 yard line or a big-play touchdown.
We’ve seen the tide turn a big recently with solid showings against Iowa and Rutgers.
However, Wisconsin still ranks No. 120 nationally in points/quality drive despite ranking No. 47 in percentage of quality drives.
Against a Northwestern team that shouldn’t have much success against the Wisconsin defense, turning scoring chances into touchdowns is the way to make sure this isn’t a close contest.
Make Andrew Marty play from behind
Nov 6, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Andrew Marty (7) passes in the second half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Marty is the third quarterback to get significant time for Northwestern this season.
Last week against Iowa he and the Wildcats fell behind early, forcing a need for a pass-heavy offensive attack to get them back in the game. The result of that? Marty’s final stat line was 25/44, 270 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions.
Northwestern operates best when Evan Hull is running the ball effectively and keeping the offense on schedule (sound familiar?). Taking an early lead and forcing Marty to bring Northwestern back with his arm will be necessary on Saturday. If it happens, it’s hard seeing the Wildcats with this game.
Look out for Marty's legs
Nov 6, 2021; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Andrew Marty (7) runs with the football in the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports
If Wisconsin’s nationally-ranked defense has one Achilles heel, it may be a running quarterback.
We’ll see the matchup next weekend when Adrian Martinez and Nebraska come to town, as Martinez also boasts an effective arm. Marty’s arm leaves a lot to be desired, but he has done well on the ground this season.
A few highlight games:
7 carries, 44 yards, 1 touchdown in Northwestern’s loss to Duke.
7 carries, 28 yards in Northwestern’s loss to Minnesota
The Iowa defense did a great job shutting down Marty’s legs, allowing only 14 yards on 13 total carries. Wisconsin will look to repeat that effort Saturday and force the Northwestern quarterback to win the game with his arm.