The University of Wisconsin football team heads to Evanston, Illinois, to take on Northwestern University this Saturday in search of their first road win over Northwestern in more than 16 years.
The No. 8 Badgers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) have not defeated the Wildcats (4-4, 3-2) at Ryan Field since 1999. The oldest UW players, like fifth-year senior and outside linebacker Vince Biegel, were six years old, and some of the members of the 2016 recruiting class were born just a year earlier.
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The Chicago Cubs broke their 108-year World Series title drought this week, so perhaps that is a good omen for a Badgers team that has struggled against Northwestern lately.
It’s not 108 years, but it’s becoming a troubling trend, especially for a team hoping to take control of its destiny within the Big Ten West. A win on Saturday, coupled with a University of Nebraska loss at Ohio State University Saturday, would put the Badgers in the driver’s seat on the road to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.
At the beginning of the season, some predicted Wisconsin’s record to appear the opposite of what it is now, or at least closer to that. It was a brutal schedule, but the team feels they are not nearly “through the gauntlet” just yet.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a football season when November was an easy month,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “You can’t pick and choose. I think this is the right thing for our team and I still believe it’s the right thing for our team, you gotta try to ignore all the outside noise because none of it matters. We know that this is a tough stretch ahead of us.”
Winning out to reach the conference title game begins with the Wildcats, who are currently playing their best football of the season. After suffering non-conference losses to Western Michigan University and Illinois State University, Northwestern rebounded to go 4-2 over its last six games, with those losses coming at home against Northwestern and at Ohio State.
Their game against the Buckeyes last Saturday, in which they lost 24-20 and nearly pulled off the upset, proved this team is much improved from those ugly early season losses, Biegel said.
“Northwestern is really starting gaining momentum throughout the rest of the season, starting to find an identity,” Biegel said.
Running back Justin Jackson establishes the run for the Northwestern offense. Against UW last year, he rushed for 139 yards and scored a touchdown during the Wildcats’ 13-7 win at Camp Randall Stadium.
The air attack for Northwestern features receiver Austin Carr, who caught touchdowns in six straight games before having that streak snapped at Ohio State. In 2016, Carr has caught 58 passes for 878 yards and nine touchdowns. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson has thrown 15 touchdowns — third-most in the Big Ten — and six interceptions this season. He has accumulated 250 yards or more through the air in his last three games.
On the defensive side, Chryst will have to match his wits against Wildcat defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who served in the same position at UW from 2006-07 before taking the Northwestern job the next season. Chryst said he has tremendous respect for Hankwitz as a coach and person, and sees his unit on the rise.
“Working with him, going against him, it’s always a fundamentally sound defense,” Chryst said. “Kids know what to do and, I can say this first-hand, taught how to do it. He’s got answers. If something is a strength, he’s got an answer. He can go to it without compromising another part of the defense.”
The same as the last Nebraska game, Wisconsin figures to use two quarterbacks at Northwestern in fifth-year senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Regardless of who is under center, the players know Saturday is a must-win game, even if the Wildcats are not ranked.
“It’s not a top-10 matchup,” Biegel said, “but that doesn’t take away the importance of this game, the implications that it has.”
Bumbaca’s Prediction: Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 17
Northwester is our national nightmare. Well, yes, the Cubs, but also the Badgers losing streak at Northwestern will finally terminate. Exorcising demons is a beautiful thing.
As is tradition, though, the Wisconsin offense will come out sluggish. Enter Houston. Enter Ogunbowale running out of a three-wide shotgun formation. The defense will be solid for the most part, but big plays from Carr and Jackson are inevitable with the way the secondary has been tackling.
It doesn’t have to be pretty. (It won’t be pretty, that’s a guarantee.) But in a week of streak reversals, it just feel right the Badgers reverse their fortune too.
Northwestern vs. Wisconsin Cheat Sheet
When: Saturday, Nov. 5, 11 a.m.
Where: Evanston, Illinois, Ryan Field
TV: ABC (Bob Wischusen, Brock Huard, Allison Williams)
Radio: Sirius/XM 84 (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas, Patrick Herb)
Series Record: 57-35-5