Wisconsin Preview and Prediction
By Joel Kanvik
Matchup: Northwestern Wildcats (2-1, 0-0) at #9 Wisconsin Badgers (3-0, 0-0)
Date: Saturday, 30 Sep 2017, 11:00 a.m. CDT
Line: Wisconsin (-14.5) (O/U 51.5)
Wow! 49-7! Thorson was a monster, 23-30 for 370 and 3
TDs! Justin Jackson ran wild, averaging almost 7 a carry!
And the defense held the opponent to 352 total yards and only 1
TD! The 'Cats are back!
Bzzzzzz. Thank you for playing. Don Pardo has some nice parting gifts for you.
Deep breath, Purple Patriots. It was Bowling Green. We were
21-point favorites despite the Debacle in Durham, after all. As
the anagrammaticly correct Line from last game pointed out, BGSU all
too easily becomes BUGS. And that's they way it looked on the
field. The Falcons looked like no more than all the bug splats on
a windshield during a cross-country road trip.
Yes, the 'Cats looked great. But there's a reason for that.
Teams often look like that when playing truly downtrodden
competition. It's why teams like Alabama pay FBS bottom feeders
almost 7 figures to come to their stadium to get shellacked in front of
the home crowd. Or Washington. Or Nebraska. Oh,
wait. Strike that last one. At the end of the day, all due
respect to BGSU, they were the true cupcake on NU's schedule.
But now it's the big leagues. This week kicks off the Big Ten
season for Northwestern, when the games really matter. And what
better way for the Cats to start their Big Ten campaign than with their
main rival for the West crown, the Badgers. Most prognosticators
picked the Badgers to represent the West in the Big Ten Championship,
but a handful chose our boys in purple and white (of course, those
predictions were made before the thrashing at the hands of the
Dookies). So the winner of the tilt on Saturday likely has the
inside track to Indianapolis. Unlike last year, when the Badgers
had all three Big Ten East powerhouses on the schedule (and lost
heartbreakers to two of them), the only Big Ten East power the Badgers
play this season is Michigan, who visit Camp Randall in
mid-November. That significantly raises the importance for the
'Cats to come away with a victory in Madison.
As has been the case so far this season, the Cats are riding the legs
of Justin Jackson and arm of Clayton Thorson. As one Line staffer
likes to call him, Future Denver Broncos running back Jackson continues
to play a pivotal role in the success of the offense. Jackson has
scored 4 touchdowns rushing, while averaging a respectable 4.5 yards
per carry. Thorson has continued his maturation and improvement
this season, but he still needs to be smarter with his
decision-making. His completion percentage stands at 63.9%, which
represents a big jump over his freshman and sophomore seasons.
However, his touchdown-to-interception ratio (4 TD, 3 INT) is still a
negative, something he really needs to improve upon this season if the
'Cats have any illusions about making it to postseason play.
Thorson is a threat to run, which forces defenses to pay more attention
to him and less to Jackson and NU's corps of receivers. Thorson
has been good about spreading the ball around to his receivers, as 3
have double-digit catches and one more (Jackson) sits at 9.
The defense obviously throttled the Falcons, but the game against Duke
was a much better yardstick to see where they are against true D-I
competition. And it's not really a story with a happy
ending. The defense gave up 538 yards against an ACC also-ran,
and Duke held the ball for over 40 minutes. Some of that was
aided by NU's generosity with the football (3 turnovers), but it is
still evident that the NU defense just can't get off the field with any
consistency. As the Line noted in Week 1, when your leading
tackler plays in the secondary, that's a bad sign. And so it
is: against Duke 2 of the top 3 tacklers were the skinny guys
with the small numbers.
And now the Cats are heading into what is shaping up to be another
beatdown. The Badgers are led by sophomore quarterback Alex
Hornibrook. Hornibrook, a lefty, saw significant game action last
season, taking over the starter's job early in the season from
fifth-year senior Bart Houston, though both played meaningful
snaps. Hornibrook is fresh of a record-breaking performance
against the BYU Cougars in Provo (read: significantly better
competition, and on the road). Hornibrook was 18 of 19 for 256
yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the Badgers' 40-6 drubbing of the
Cougars. That's not a typo; he missed 1 pass (and it was a
The Badgers, long known as Tailback U, have reloaded. Gone is the
two-headed monster of Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbawale (notably, both
are currently on NFL rosters). In their place the Badgers have
found a gem in freshman Jonathan Taylor. Taylor seems to have
leapfrogged last season's 3rd-stringer, Bradrick Shaw, who played in 11
games and rang up 457 yards on 88 carries, despite Shaw being on the
preseason Doak Walker watch list. Taylor hinted at
his talent in the season opener against Utah State (okay, so not much
competition there), and then really shined against Florida Atlantic in
Week 2, ripping off 223 yards on 26 carries, including a 64-yard run to
paydirt. Against their first "real" opponent, Taylor rolled up
128 on only 18 carries. The offensive line has returned to what
fans have come to expect from Wisconsin, 5 320+ guys moving everything
in sight. Alternate those two behind the typical Wisconsin
road-grader offensive line, and the 'Cats D will be gasping for oxygen
early and often.
In the passing game, Hornibrook's favorite target is senior tight end
Troy Fumagalli who, at 6'6", is a big target with great hands (all the
more remarkable given that he has one less finger than most of the rest
of us). Repeatedly in 2016, when the Badgers needed a clutch
catch to move the sticks, it was Fumagalli who got the ball. And
this year the Badgers have two credible threats at the wide receiver
position. Senior Jazz Peavy always seems to find a way to get
open, and sophomore Quintez Cephus has shown a knack this young season
for making acrobatic catches, including 2 touchdowns against BYU.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Badgers are fresh out of Watts
to torture the Big Ten. The youngest of the Watt brothers, T.J.,
left Wisconsin after his junior year and now wears the black and gold
of the Pittsburgh Steelers (his season debut resulted in 2 sacks and an
interception...yeah, it was against the Browns, but still). The
Badgers also lost Vince Biegel to the NFL draft. Their best
returning linebacker, Jack Cichy, suffered a torn ACL during preseason
practice, and is lost for the year. One would think that would
leave the Badger linebacker corps pretty depleted. Well, one
would be wrong. With a "next man up" mentality, the Badgers seem
to have reloaded at LB and continue to field a strong presence, led by
juniors TJ Edwards and Chris Orr.
To win the game, the Cats offense must play virtually mistake-free
football. Thorson can't revert to his past generous ways.
The NU line has to open big holes for FDBRB Jackson, who needs to
eclipse the 100-yard mark for the Cats to have a chance. On
defense, the front four need to stand up to the Badger road graders,
keeping the linebackers clean and free to make tackles. The
initial Line's prediction of Iguibuike as the leading tackler on
defense boding ill is particularly applicable for this game. If
the Badger running backs routinely reach the secondary, it will be a
long afternoon in Madison.
This rivalry has seen some surprises in past years, with games turning
out nothing like what was predicted before kickoff. The Ron Dayne
fumble game in Madison and the 35-0 pasting of the Badgers on the way
to the Rose Bowl are two examples; to illustrate the counterpoint, in
2010 Wisconsin (thanks to 7 Wildcats turnovers) hung a 70 on the 'Cats
(in fairness, Wisconsin was ranked #5 and no one thought we'd upset
them...but surrender 70 points?!). Most instructive, however, are
the last two games, neither of which were examples of well-played
football. In 2015, FDBRB Jackson rolled up well over 100 yards,
Thorson threw only 20 passes (completing a measly 9), Corey Clement ran
for only 24 yards, and the Badgers had almost as many turnovers (5) as
points (7). The following year, Jackson had 42 yards total,
Thorson put the ball in the air 52 times (!), but the Wildcats had the
ball for less than 1/3 of the game, managing to score a mere 7
points. In 2017, that formula will likely hold yet again.
If the Wildcats want to cast a pall over the 5th Quarter at Camp
Randall, they need to run the ball successfully and keep the defense
where it belongs...on the bench, win the turnover battle, and keep the
Badger backs from running wild.
In my heart, I'd like to say that the Wildcats will do just that and
will pull the huge upset. However, I just don't see it
happening. Lining up a Cats defense that can't seem to find a way
to stop drives and get off the field against a Wisconsin offense that
is all about running the ball and grinding out drives strikes me as a
fool's errand. Hope I'm wrong, but I see 2 Badger backs reaching
the 100-yard plateau. Iguibuike will lead the 'Cats D in tackles,
often double-digit yards from the line of scrimmage. Fumagalli,
Cephus, and Peavy will take advantage of a nicked up and undermanned NU
secondary to keep the chains moving for the Badgers. I expect at
least one 50+-yard run for a touchdown by the Badgers. On the
offensive side of the ball, Justin Jackson will be on a first-name
basis with TJ Edwards and Chris Orr by the end of the game, and they
might even exchange favorite recipes. One possible bright area
for the 'Cats is that the Badger secondary isn't great, with
cornerbacks picking up pass interference penalties because they have
yet to master turning their heads to look for the ball. Even if
Thorson doesn't throw the ball to the guys in cardinal and white,
however, it won't be enough. Badgers take control of the Big Ten
West with a dominating win at Camp Randall.
PICK: Wisconsin 38, Northwestern 17. Take the Badgers and give the points.
Season to date: 2-1 straight up, 1-2 ATS
The Lowes Line is an
e-mailed description of NU's
football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome
how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict. Our
friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.
The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat,
GallopingGrapes, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and
MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.
the 2017 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com,
for anyone to enjoy. Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes