Northwestern travels to Madison for its Big Ten opener against No. 10 Wisconsin on Saturday.
Do the Wildcats have what it takes to pull off the upset? Here are some things to watch for and our prediction for the game.
Which Northwestern teams shows up?
It’s interesting that we don’t yet know very much about these Wildcats. Through three games they’ve been as up-and-down as an elevator at Willis Tower.
Down: They trailed Nevada, now 0-4 with a loss to Idaho State, by 10 at halftime of the opener.
Up: They drilled the Wolf Pack 24-3 in the second half, allowing only 121 yards while racking up 308.
Down: They traveled to Durham and “got their fannies whipped,” as head coach Pat Fitzgerald put it, by Duke, the only Power Five team they’ve faced so far.
Up: They clicked on all cylinders and destroyed Bowling Green 49-7, but the Falcons are 0-4 with a loss to South Dakota.
That’s six quarters up and six quarters down, for those scoring at home.
So, who is this team? The unit that looked sound in the second half against Nevada and for four quarters against Bowling Green, or the one that got embarrassed in all phases by Duke in the only road game it’s played so far? We will find out on Saturday.
Will Justin Jackson get 100 yards?
It’s hardly a secret that as Justin Jackson goes, so goes Northwestern. The Wildcats are 18-4 when Jackson runs for 100 yards in a game and just 6-13 when he doesn’t. His performances against Wisconsin are cases in point: he rushed for 162 and 139 yards in wins in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but was held to just 42 yards in a loss to the Badgers last season.
The thing is, Jackson’s output will largely be determined by the play of quarterback Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats’ wide receivers. Wisconsin, like any other team that plays the Wildcats, will probably try to play a single-high safety with man coverage on the outside against NU’s wide receivers so that it can devote an extra man in the box to stop Jackson. Northwestern’s offensive line hasn’t shown the ability to punch holes in a font seven when outnumbered (see: Duke game), so Thorson, Bennett Skowronek, Flynn Nagel, Macan Wilson & Co., will have to make some plays down field to loosen things up so that Jackson can get his engine going. The O-line, in turn, will have to keep Thorson upright as he scans the field – no sure thing (see: Duke game).
That was the formula for the Wildcats against Nevada and Bowling Green, when Thorson threw for 352 and 370 yards, respectively, and Jackson, not coincidentally, topped the century mark in both games. Against Duke, however, Thorson threw for just 120 yards, with two interceptions and no touchdowns, and got sacked four times. The running game sputtered, Jackson wound up with a career-low 18 yards rushing, and Northwestern got blown out.
(Jackson needs 109 yards to surpass Damien Anderson and become Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher.)
How will NU’s front seven hold up against the Badgers power running game?
There are no secrets about Wisconsin. Every year the Badgers have a big, physical offensive line and a runner at or near the top of the Big Ten in rushing (this year it’s freshman Jonathan Taylor, who leads the league with 146.0 yards per game). They get off the bus running the ball and will continue to do so until you stop them or the clock hits 0:00 – events that often coincide.
Northwestern’s defensive tackles, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson, are strong and experienced, but the defensive end spot bears watching. Can Joe Gaziano and true freshman Samdup Miller hold the edge against the run and stop runners from bouncing outside? More crucially, will they be able to put pressure on quarterback Alex Hornibrook when the Badgers throw the ball? Hornibrook is completing 70 percent of his passes this season and can kill you over the top after you’ve grown accustomed to the numbing jackhammer of the Wisconsin running game.
The Wildcats are also down two of their top six linebackers: Jango Glackin was lost for the season after an injury against Bowling Green and Nathan Fox is out for Saturday. That could be crucial in such a physical game.
One key for NU’s defense will be third downs. The Badgers have converted 57.9 percent of their third downs so far this season, best in the Big Ten, while Northwestern has allowed teams to convert on 47.2 percent, second-worst in the league and 114th in the country. The Wildcats have to improve that number substantially to emerge from Madison with a win.
Can the Wildcats play clean football?
Going into the bye week, Fitzgerald talked about four areas the team could improve before the start of Big Ten play: fundamentals, consistency, sacks and turnovers. The Wildcats will have to be better in all four areas against the Badgers.
Fundamentals and consistency speak to Northwestern’s ragged play at times this season. The offensive line experienced numerous breakdowns and was still rotating players series-to-series against Bowling Green. Wide receivers failed to run precise routes, gain separation or win 50-50 balls, and they were plagued by a few drops. The Wildcats were called for several ill-timed penalties, even if they are the third least-penalized team in the league. Most glaring, Northwestern has missed more than its share of tackles.
As far as sacks go, Northwestern has just four on the season, and three of them came against lowly Bowling Green. Part of that can be explained by the abundance of run-pass options teams ran against them, which tempers a pass rush, but it’s clear that the Wildcats need to bring more heat on opposing quarterbacks.
And turnovers have cropped up as an issue this season, something that usually isn’t the case for a Fitzgerald-coached team. Northwestern is an uncharacteristic 13th in the Big Ten with a minus-2 turnover ratio. The Wildcats turned the ball over just 16 times in 2016; they have seven after three games this season.
After being a favorite for three straight games, Northwestern is back in its comfort zone as a road underdog. Wisconsin is a 15.5-point favorite, and deservedly so. The Badgers have some impressive numbers, leading the Big Ten in scoring, rushing, pass efficiency, time of possession and third-down conversions.
But while Northwestern hasn’t beaten anyone of note (neither Nevada nor Bowling Green has won a game yet), neither, really, have the Badgers, who have vanquished Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU. So Wisconsin will also be facing, by far, it’s most formidable opponent.
If Northwestern can make some plays early in the passing game and the offense is two-dimensional, expect another typical, tight Wildcat-Badger game. These two teams are an incredible 13-13 against each other over their last 26 meetings, and many of those contests have gone down to the wire – a couple Badger blowouts in Madison notwithstanding.
As Fitzgerald pointed out, it’s typically the team that makes fewer mistakes that wins when these two teams play. That’s the problem, as Northwestern has had its share of miscues this season.
We think the game will be closer than expected, but Wisconsin pulls out the win. However, if things go against the Wildcats early, it could easily turn into another lopsided Badger rout.
Pick: Wisconsin 27 Northwestern 17