Lowes Line


Wisconsin Preview and Prediction

By Joel Kanvik

Matchup:  #10 Wisconsin Badgers (2-0) at #19 Northwestern Wildcats (4-0)
Date:  Saturday, November 21, 2020, 2:30 p.m. CST
Location:  Ryan Field at Dyche Stadium
Line:  Northwestern (+7.5) (o/u 44)

Outlook:   It certainly has been wonderful to see Northwestern roll up 4 wins in a row, including the last few as a favored team.  The Cats historically have not always worn the title of favorite (or ranked) very well.  Four teams that Northwestern should beat.  Four victories.  That's how a program starts earning respect and becomes self-sustaining.  But now, it's time to put on the Big Boy Pants (TM).  #10 Wisconsin is coming for a visit, and the outcome of this game will likely determine who faces off in the Big Ten Championship game against the winner of the East, and who plays against the East's first also-ran.

The game against Purdue went largely as forecast in last week's abbreviated Line (hey, some Line staffers manage to turn out an accurate Line AND go save lives!  #respect).  Northwestern played good defense, kept the ball on offense, and covered against a Purdue team they should have beaten.  The bright spot on offense was the passing game, with 3 touchdowns to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman.  Peyton Ramsey has proven more efficient with the ball than quarterbacks past, with a higher completion percentage and lower turnover rate.  What was a little jarring against the Boilers was the lack of a running game.  Bowser was at the top of the NU running back class, with only 27 yards rushing.  On 13 carries.  Two yards per carry just isn't going to get it done against better competition.

The defense continues to play well.  Until Purdue, Northwestern had not surrendered a point in the second half.  Despite surrendering yards in the typical bend-but-don't-break Cats' style, the Cats have had more success in getting off the field on 3rd down.  In three out of four games, the turnover ratio has been even; the lone exception was the opener against Maryland, in which the Cats won the turnover battle 4-0.  The Cats have some great momentum, and this Saturday we'll find out if they're the irresistible force or something less.

Enter the Badgers.  It's a little harder to get a handle on what the Badgers will represent Saturday as two of the Badgers' games were canceled due to Covid-19.  The Badgers opened the season against Illinois, and smoked Lovie Smith's charges 45-7 behind 5 touchdown passes from new starter Graham Mertz, on 20-21 passing.  Yes, you read that right...the Badgers struck early and often through the air.  The Badgers' next game was last weekend, at the Big House against what is increasingly appearing to be a terrible Wolverines team (lifetime contract for Harbaugh!  Please!).  The Wolverines didn't have much more success against the Badgers than the Illini, getting shellacked 49-11.  Mertz wasn't nearly as efficient, but still completed passes to move the sticks and score when needed.

Statistically speaking, the Badger defense has been suffocating this season.  Wisconsin leads the country in total defense, surrendering only 218 yards a game, and also giving up only an average of 8.5 points per game.  As is typical of a Badger defense,  linebackers are the strength of the defense.  Yet many are questioning whether Wisconsin should truly be considered an elite defense, despite the statistical prowess.  Wisconsin has played a mere two games and neither opposing offense would be considered a juggernaut.  Northwestern's defense, with a larger sample size of 4 games, isn't ranked too far behind Wisconsin's, and the offenses NU's defense has stifled are certainly better than Wisconsin's opponents.  Recall that Iowa put up almost half a hundred against Michigan State, a team that beat Michigan.

One odd part up Madison way is that no alpha dog running back has yet emerged.  Two-time Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor is playing on Sundays, so the Badgers have resorted to running back by committee so far this season, giving three to four backs meaningful carries.  Nakia Harris, who spelled Taylor last season, returns, as has Garrett Groshek, who was the third down, change-of-pace back in 2019.  Jalen Berger has also shown promise carrying the ball, averaging over 5 yards per carry.

So when the showdown for the Big Ten West crown kicks off on Saturday, what happens?  Can the Cats' defense continue to bend but not break, and get off the field on 3rd down?  Will the Cats' running game show up again?  Will Ramsey throw to the purple (or grey, or black, or whatever Under Armour concocts this week) jerseys, or will too many of his passes find their way to white trimmed with red?  Will Graham Mertz dissect the Cats' secondary like he did the previous two games?

Time of possession is frequently cited as one of the more misleading statistics, but I think it will matter in this game.  If NU can hold the ball like it did against Purdue (35 minutes), that means the NU defense stays on the sidelines and doesn't get worn out by yet another massive Badger offensive line.  Certainly the Badger offense is far more formidable than Purdue's (or Maryland's...or Nebraska's) and the threat presented by the Badgers is more diverse than at any time since Russell Wilson lined up under center.  I have to believe that Paul Chryst will review the Purdue film and see that the secondary is a bit vulnerable to the bigger play/pass interference penalty.  Cornerback Greg Newsome II played solid defense against top Boilermaker receiver Bell, but did get dinged for a couple of DPIs.  And one facet of the passing game at which Wisconsin excels over most of the others in the Big Ten is tight end play; Jake Ferguson (grandson of AD Barry Alvarez) made several key plays against the Wolverines.

Unfortunately, at 4-0 and ranked, Northwestern isn't sneaking up on the Badgers, and this definitely isn't a trap game.  I see nothing to indicate it will be anything but another Big Ten West rock fight.   Wisconsin will have to work harder to put up yards in the running game, and will be in passing situations more frequently.  Northwestern will need a breakout day from the running game, or the defense will wear down and take chances of victory with it.  At the end, both sides will emerge from the game bloodied and bruised, but Northwestern's defense does just enough to leave the Purple and White (yes, Under Armour, you read that right...) smiling through the pain.

Final side note:  ESPN's football power index gives Northwestern just a 14% chance to win.  Coach Fitzgerald, might I suggest that be posted on the bulletin board next to the following:

Pick:  Northwestern 24, Wisconsin 21.  The Cats' defense holds up against the Wisconsin offense, preserving the victory late.

Season to Date:  3-1 ATS, 4-0 Straight up

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, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2020 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!