Lowes Line


Wisconsin Preview and Prediction

By Joel Kanvik

Matchup: #23 Wisconsin Badgers (5-2, 3-1) at Northwestern Wildcats (4-3, 4-1)
Date: 11:00 a.m. CDT, Saturday, October 27, 2018, Ryan Field
TV: Fox
Line: Wisconsin (-7), O/U 51.0


I'm sure our readers enjoyed the previous version of the Line for its farcical and likely legally-actionable contents ("What?  A summons?!").  But, season after season, that Line staffer puts a hell of a lot of pressure on me, because I have to follow his creative exploits.  Dammit.  Talk about being born under a bad sign...

...which sums up the current state of Scarlet Knights football.  See what I did there?  That's a "segue".  Take that, Python boy!  Prior to Northwestern's visit to the home of Rutgers football, seeing Rutgers on your schedule would seem like Christmas come early (official slogan:  "Scarlet Knights football...catch the sniffles!").  It's every team's chance to get in a Saturday practice against a veritable scout team, get all the plays working, coast to an easy victory.  Seriously, the Scarlet Knights paid the University of Buffalo well into six figures to visit Piscataway and then just as graciously lost to the Bulls.  And the game wasn't even competitive!  It was 35-6 at halftime, for cryin' out loud!  It's a good thing for Rutgers that relegation isn't a thing in college football, or else the Scarlet Knights might be lining up against a beast of a Pop Warner team before long.  The Wildcats visited Piscataway as a somewhat unbelievable 20.5-point favorite on the road (when was the last time NU was favored by 20+ for a road conference game?  Very probably this is a trick question, as the answer has to be "never.").

And that's where the fun ended.  Northwestern has a history of playing to the level of its opponent.  And apparently we are failing our history course, because we have repeated it over and over again.  Last Saturday was an excellent example, as Northwestern trailed much of the game against a clearly inferior opponent, and only managed to leave New Jersey with a somewhat miraculous 3-point victory.  Seriously, it has to be embarrassing we couldn't even keep up with the Buffalo Bulls!

There was one silver (or, more correctly, purple) lining to the huge cloud of a performance in Piscataway.  The Wildcats actually seem to have found a running game after repeated putrid performances.  Enter Isaiah Bowser.  Now, those of us that were sentient in the late 1970s heard "Bowser" over and over again and it conjured up memories of:

Yes, the gentleman with the slicked back hair was indeed Bowser, and he graced our television for 4 seasons as part of the Sha Na Na show.  His trademark was flexing his bicep, and then reversing his fist and flexing again.  I have to say that I'm more than mildly disappointed that we saw no reprise from NU's #25 on either occasion of crossing the goal line against the Knights.

The Sha Na Na front man and known hand jiver's descendant eclipsed the century mark, representing the first NU rusher to do so since the unfortunate forced retirement of Jeremy Larkin.  Coach Fitz has said he wants to run the ball, but this time they finally stuck with it and the results showed.  It's a far cry from our running against against the Spartans, with Damian Anderson II being the top rusher with a measly 12 yards.

The emergence of the running game saved the day, because Clayton Thorson's arm certainly wasn't going to.  This Line staffer is continually flummoxed by the praise heaped on Thorson by the announcers du jour.  They seem to think he's some type of quarterback savant, with laser accuracy.  Well, folks, a 50% pass completion rate against the Scarlet Knights is proof they really aren't paying attention to what is happening on the field.  Flynn Nagel continues to be a bright spot, somehow getting separation and snagging errant passes to at least keep Northwestern competitive.  But if NU is going to make any noise in the Big Ten West, all aspects of the offense must come together as we enter this stretch of games that includes both West powerhouses, Iowa and Wisconsin.

And it is Wisconsin that comes calling this Saturday in Evanston.  Unfortunately, NU does not have the benefit of being a kind of trap game for the Badgers.  Wisconsin's last opponent was lowly Illinois, whom they clobbered 49-20, and after playing the Cats, Wisconsin returns to the friendly confines of Camp Randall for a glorified scrimmage against Rutgers.  So, in this trifecta, the Wildcats represent by far the most compelling challenge to the Badgers' supremacy in the West, and all weasel eyes will be focused on the purple and white (and grey...and black...and whatever else Under Armour does to desecrate our uniforms).

The Wildcats will be playing Mario to Wisconsin's Bowser.  If you had a Nintendo or Super Nintendo, certainly you remember the other pop culture Bowser, the bruising turtle frequently preventing Mario from rescuing Princess Peach.  To make all Mario Kart aficionados involuntarily cringe, I present the 90s version of Bowser:

All of the typical hallmarks of Wisconsin football are present with the 2018 version of the Badgers.  Big, mauling offensive line:  check.  Versatile, gifted running back rotation:  check.  Deep, athletic linebacker corps:  check.  Quarterback expected to manage the game: check (Russell Wilson was the one outlier here).  Good coaching:  check (Bret Bielema notwithstanding).  The Badger offense continues to be led by Alex Hornibrook, the junior southpaw quarterback who has started since midway through his freshman year.  At times Hornibrook looks in total control of the offense, able to make every throw in the book.  At other turns, Hornibrook makes what can be charitably characterized as questionable decisions with the football, so he is prone to a bonehead pass or two that inevitably ends up in the hands of the opponent.  As an aside, Hornibrook receives similar, inexplicable praise as Thorson.  Having watched both players for as long as I have, it is clear TV analysts for each's games are basically stealing money, because they're obviously not paying any attention.

Behind Hornibrook, Jonathan Taylor heads up a trio of gifted runners.  The bloom has come off Taylor's Heisman campaign this year, but he still manages to roll up yards gained, especially after contact.  Taylor is second in Division I-A in rushing yards.  His Achilles heel seems to be his tendency to put the ball on the ground, something he has tightened up in recent games.  Behind Taylor, Taiwan Deal represents a bigger, more physical runner.  And on obvious passing downs, Garret Groshek lines up in the backfield, and has proven to be a good threat to run out of the shotgun or catch passes.  The Wisconsin receiving corps is decent despite the continued absence of Quintez Cephus, and their top three receivers are threats to make big plays.  If Hornibrook can actually get them the ball.

When the Cats have the ball, expect to hear the names Edwards, Van Ginkel, and Connelly early and often, just like voting in nearby Chicago.  Those three represent the latest incarnation of the talented linebackers Wisconsin has recruited in recent years.  Van Ginkel will introduce himself to Thorson in the backfield as an edge rusher, and Edwards has great range, tackling ability, and a nose for the football.  The Wisconsin defensive line actually a weak point this year, struggling to put pressure on the passer.  But they do occupy blocks to free up the linebackers to make plays.  The secondary, though led by a seasoned playmaker in D'Cota Dixon, actually suffers from a lot of youth and inexperience.  Hate to say it (given Thorson's erratic arm), but this might be the way to exploit the Badgers' D.

Lengthy Digression:

What happened to the Northwestern offense?  I dearly miss the offense that scared the crap out of every defense that saw NU on its schedule.  The offense that played fast or faster, was creative in getting the ball to playmakers, that allowed NU to win games like the "instant classic" against Michigan in 2000, for example.  The offense that caused ESPN to put timers on the offense between plays, and rarely did NU hit double digits before the ball was snapped.  That made the most out of the athletic abilities of its athletes.  These days, I'm fairly certain no opponent looks at their schedule, sees Northwestern, and experiences a moment of panic (and certainly no one will this season when they see our results against Akron and Rutgers).  Frankly, as it stands, I would not be surprised if the American Medical Association and the FDA were studying Northwestern offensive playing calling to classify it as a member of the barbiturate family.  Just as effective as soporific medications that require a prescription, but definitely not habit-forming.  Perhaps Mr. McCall's time as the play caller needs to come to a close, and we find someone else who reignites passionate offense?  /digression off

So, which Bowser will we see at Ryan Field come Saturday?  This one?

or this one?

Pick: Sadly, Bowser won't be singing "Goodnight, Sweetheart, it's time to go" and flexing at the end of the tilt at Ryan Field.  The Cats will feel like a stereotypical Italian plumber bonked with one too many turtle shells.  Wisconsin's running attack will be just too much for the Northwestern defense to contain.  Wisconsin is generous with the football, allowing the Cats to keep it close, but Northwestern's defense tires late, allowing the Badgers to pull away on a late rushing touchdown.  Wisconsin 27, Wildcats 21.  The Cats cover, but the Big Ten West crown slips away.
Season to Date:
Straight up, 4-3.  Against the Spread, 6-1


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 2018 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!