Lowes Line


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 drop). 

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

Go 'Cats!


The Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good 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.  For the 2017 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!