When the No. 10 University of Wisconsin football team faces off against No. 19 Northwestern on Saturday, it won’t just be one of the best Big Ten Conference games of the day, but one of the best college football has to offer.
Not to mention, it’s also one of the Big Ten’s most implicative games of the season. It’s a battle for the top spot in the Big Ten’s Western division.
Wisconsin and Northwestern’s series has been tightly contested over their past six battles dating back to 2014, when the Big Ten’s division structure changed to welcome Rutgers and Maryland.
Since the West division was established, the Badgers are 3-3 against the Wildcats with each of the six contests being decided by 14 points or less. Even last year, when the Badgers went on to represent the West in the Big Ten Championship, they only managed a nine point margin of victory over the lowly 2019 Wildcats at home, a final score of 24-15.
Perhaps the Badgers’ ongoing struggle in separating from these Wildcats has much to do with the construction and mentality of each program. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald have both built their programs under a commitment to well-rounded, hard-nosed defense, as well as an offense built on ball security and a power-run game.
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Wisconsin, however, has been building a more prominent recruiting front in recent years, branching out and acquiring more top-level talent than a program like Northwestern.
Wisconsin’s young talent on both sides of the ball has been showcased through two blowout victories, and it may just be a separating factor the Badgers have been looking for against Northwestern this time around.
Quarterback Graham Mertz, running backs Nakia Watson and Jalen Berger, receiver Chimere Dike, nose tackle Keeanu Benton and linebackers Leo Chenal and Nick Herbig are all promising underclassmen who have made noticeable contributions through two games. If these players can make their mark in Evanston, I like the Badgers’ chances.
The other key factor to a confident win this weekend is Wisconsin’s continued trust in dynamic play calling. It’s possible that, over the years, Fitzgerald and the Wildcats have developed adequate preparation for Wisconsin’s annual reliance on a couple of offensive players.
Whether it was running back Melvin Gordon and receiver Alex Erickson in 2014, or running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Quintez Cephus in 2019, the Badgers have been known to flex a concentrated offensive attack.
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The 2020 Badgers have an opportunity to graduate from this mold. In part, this opportunity sprouts from a committee in the backfield. Who would have ever thought the absence of a star Badgers ball carrier could potentially be a blessing in disguise?
Redshirt senior running back Garrett Groshek is expected to play on Saturday following a bout on the COVID-19 list. He will join Watson, Berger and fullbacks Mason Stokke and John Chenal in a quintuple threat out of the backfield. After Stokke’s two-touchdown game against Michigan last week, we are honestly prepared for key touches from any and everyone.
The Badgers should also look to build upon their various end arounds, jet sweeps and double reverse plays that worked so well against Michigan. These play calls can help ease Mertz into the game early, spread the field and spread the wealth to an array of speedsters on the outside like Dike, Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor. Not only do these types of plays keep a defense on their toes when executed properly, but they also open up the offense and build confidence for big plays downfield when they are needed.
A season ago, Northwestern’s stingy defensive reputation remained intact, but the Wildcats struggled to produce any sort of consistent, promising offense. This year, with Indiana transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey under center, the Wildcats have scored over 21 points in each of their four games, all victories. Over the course of the entire 2019 season, Northwestern managed only five over-21 point games in a total of 12 contests.
Similar to the Badgers, the Wildcats are getting more creative in 2020. Already, the Wildcats have rushing touchdowns from six different players.
Even more impressive is their always stout defense. In 2020, Northwestern has yet to give up more than 20 points in any of their four games. More specifically, and even more troublesome, the Wildcats have already recorded seven interceptions on the young season, constantly wreaking havoc and taking pressure off their offense.
Mertz will have to continue playing well against this impressive defense, but the Badgers need dyanamic play calling and the involvement of a variety of weapons to make sure Wisconsin’s fate doesn’t fall solely on his shoulders.
There is no way around it, this game means everything for these two programs in 2020. For Northwestern, the Wildcats have to leave it all on the field, on their home turf. A win this weekend could leave Wisconsin and the rest of the West in the dust, considering Northwestern’s remaining schedule features three opponents with a combined three wins.
For the Badgers, a marquee win in Evanston could fuel the confidence needed to propel this team through a fairly difficult remaining schedule, including the likes of No. 9 Indiana, to a second straight Big Ten West title.
We know the stakes, we know what these Badgers are capable of. Now we wait to see if they can execute for four quarters in Evanston on Saturday.
The game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. CT on ABC.