Game Preview


Camp Randall Stadium
Saturday, November 25.  2:30 pm CST
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Wisconsin
by Jonathan Hodges

Well here we are, the final week of the regular season for many teams, including the two squads facing off on Saturday afternoon.  The Northwestern Wildcats (7-4, 3-4) head up to Madison to face a BCS No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (10-1, 6-1) squad that is looking to lock up at least a share of the Big Ten title and, as long as Ohio State beats Michigan, a trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 11 years.  The 'Cats will be looking to do anything they can to climb the bowl ladder as they likely sit at the bottom rung relative to other Big Ten teams despite locking up their third consecutive winning season two weeks ago.

In order for Northwestern to pull off this momentous upset, they will need to play a perfect game and find some way to contain the Wisconsin offense: something that nobody else has really been able to do as of late.  The Badgers have scored 31 or more points in the six consecutive games following their only loss of the season (at Michigan State) and have won those games by an average of 22.7 points.  They average 5.5 yards per carry and have THREE running backs who each have 686 or more yards on the season (for comparison, NU's leading rusher, Mike Trumpy, has 530 yards on the season).  And, they're no slouch on defense, ranking 26th nationally in total defense, although it's clear that they can pound their way to victory via their potent offense.

The Wildcats will also have to find some way to spark their own offense without the services of Dan Persa, who was on the sideline last week and has been more than willing to help out in more of a coaching role.  Evan Watkins hit just 50% of his passes, didn't convert a third down, and generally held onto the football for too long, something both he and Coach Fitz acknowledged following the game.  It will be interesting to see how true freshman QB Kain Colter performs as he came in and earned Northwestern's only 2 third down conversions on the ground (he had 3 rushes for 10 yards in the game); it's clear that Northwestern will use him some as a change of pace and the question for this game is how often he will be thrown into the mix.

It's clear, though, that NU has its work cut out for itself given that they face the nation's 12th ranked running offense that also features a potent passing attack (UW QB Scott Tolzien just passed Dan Persa for the nation's lead in completion percentage).  Last week, the 'Cats were seemingly unable to stop Illinois on the ground, and if they put together a similar performance, look for Wisconsin to be well on their way to surpassing the 83 points they put on Indiana two weeks ago.  Also, don't discount the fact that Wisconsin is playing for what will likely be a berth in the Rose Bowl and would also like to avenge last year's loss to the 'Cats that propelled NU over the Badgers and into the Outback Bowl.

One interesting note for the game time (2:30PM CT kickoff) is that the other games impacting the Big Ten title race will be finished or close to finished when this one kicks off.  Both Michigan @ Ohio State and Michigan State @ Penn State kick off at 11:00AM CT (Ohio State and Michigan State are tied with Wisconsin at 10-1, 6-1).  Wisconsin needs Ohio State to win (as they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Buckeyes and would also likely win out in a three-way-tie which would utilize the BCS standings, in which they are ahead of OSU and MSU at the moment) and would also be OK with a Michigan State loss (since MSU owns a head-to-head tiebreaker over them).  It will be interesting to see the scores and see the situation on the field in this one before kickoff.

Opening Line

Wisconsin by 24.

Who Should Win

Wisconsin, hands down.  Northwestern's defense has been spotty at best all year long and just allowed Illinois to run wild on them (for 519 yards on the ground), and with a similar showing Wisconsin should have no trouble racking up as many points as they would like.  Plus, the NU offense without Dan Persa just doesn't scare anyone especially since it now features both a redshirt freshman and true freshman on the 2-deep at both running back and quarterback.  Not only would the 'Cats have to play a perfect game but they would have to turn things around on both sides of the ball and somehow overcome a huge home field disadvantage, too.  This should easily be Northwestern's toughest game of the season.

Upset Factor

It's November (when Fitz likes to win) and the 'Cats are facing Wisconsin (who he likes to beat), and NU has shown it can bounce back from complete defensive collapses (see the win over Iowa that followed a second half meltdown at Penn State).  And Northwestern is a huge underdog: exactly the place that they like to be.  Yes, there's not a huge chance, but NU could make the Badgers sweat this out by playing their best game of the year on both sides of the ball and avoiding mistakes.  NU could also benefit from Wisconsin just being overconfident, but the fact is that they probably have good reason to be.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense v. Wisconsin Defense

Well, week one without Dan Persa didn't go so well for the 'Cats, who came in near the top nationally in third down conversions (converting over 50% through the first 10 games of this season) but failed early and often against Illinois, going 2-of-10 in that all-important category.  In a correlated statistic, NU came in leading the nation in drives of 10+ plays but had none on the day (they did get 2 8-play drives, both leading to scores); it was clear that Persa's ability to extend plays and to get the necessary yardage for conversions was dearly missed.  Now, NU will have to find a way to do something to make up for his absence.

It will help that Watkins and Colter got their feet wet last week as they will both be called upon again to try and get something going for NU on offense.  Watkins did show off his arm, including a nice 32 yard strike to true freshman Tony Jones, but generally held onto the ball way too long as he was still adjusting to the pace of a Big Ten game.  The aforementioned Colter looked good on the ground and it will be interesting to see how and when he is used, and if he will be allowed to throw the ball.  The fact is that having one pass-only QB and one run-only QB is far inferior to having a guy like Persa who really does well at both.

Northwestern could benefit from Trumpy, though, who is coming off of a career night in which he gained 129 yards on the ground and hit paydirt twice, including a beatific 80 yard sprint for a touchdown.  The 'Cats would definitely benefit from a great performance on the ground as well as some more explosion plays like that 80-yarder.  Unfortunately, though, Wisconsin is competent on defending the run, ranking 29th nationally in run defense and allowing under 4 yards per carry.  The Badgers have some solid linebackers, including Culme St. Jean who leads them in tackles, and a superstar on the defensive line: JJ Watt who has a whopping 18 TFLs this season alone.

Hopefully the 'Cats got all of the turnovers out of their system early against Illinois (NU turned over the ball on 3 of their first 4 drives last game after turning the ball over just once in its previous 12 quarters of play) because those mistakes will be even more costly against a team like Wisconsin who enjoy scoring on almost every possession.  Wisconsin has a solid defense but ranks just 82nd nationally in takeaways while NU is a respectable 22nd in turnovers lost, and having a couple of QBs who will be more up to speed will help the 'Cats' cause.

It's also worth noting that in Wisconsin's only loss of the season, MSU took to the air (completing 20-of-29 passes for 269 yards) and put together three rather long scoring drives (3 drives of 9+ plays) which helped keep the Badgers' offense off the field (MSU had a time of possession of 36:24).  It's likely asking a lot from these young Northwestern skill position players (all freshmen on the 2-deep in the backfield) to replicate such a performance, but it's likely the only way that the 'Cats will have a chance to win, especially considering what the Wisconsin offense can, and likely will, do.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense v. Wisconsin Offense

You've already heard how good the Badger offense is, and it's really no exaggeration.  They rank 7th nationally in scoring offense (40.9 points per game), have three excellent running backs in John Clay (who has been sidelined and is questionable for this week's game), James White, and Montee Ball (all three average over 5.4 yards per carry), and have QB Scott Tolzien who is currently ahead of the sidelined Dan Persa for completion percentage (at 73.9%).  And even in Big Ten play they are tearing through solid competition, averaging 41.7 points per game in those 7 games.  Needless to say, the NU defense will likely have to play their best game of the season in order to contain them (and, that, after allowing Illinois to run whenever and wherever they wanted).

Wisconsin's game plan is relatively simple: run early and often, and then throw off of that to a handful of solid receivers including WR Nick Toon and TE Lance Kendricks.  Tolzien excels at this thanks to the fact that he doesn't have to throw that often during the game and, when he does, it's on his terms and he usually has a receiver open.  The Badgers average 9.3 yards per pass attempt, 2.5 yards more than their opponents this season.  The team ranks 5th nationally in passing efficiency and gets many opportunities thanks to that powerful run game.

The offensive line is among the, if not the, best in the nation and features 3 seniors (C, LG, and LT), and opens plenty of holes for a running game that averages 5.5 yards per carry while also allowing the 20th fewest sacks in the nation (just over 1 per game).  They outsize almost every DL they face and the 'Cats' line will have quite a challenge in store to try and get to the ballcarrier.

Northwestern will have to channel the effort that they put up against Iowa, which, like this game, came after an abysmal performance with a slew of missed tackles (that time it was Penn State).  The first goal should be to get in position and to finish the tackle.  Next, the 'Cats would benefit greatly from somehow getting Wisconsin out of their game: that means forcing them to pass first instead of run first.  If NU finds some way of getting an early lead they can use a similar formula as last year, when the Wildcats pulled off an upset over the Badgers in Evanston: they pulled out a big first half lead and then weathered the storm in the second half, particularly thanks to the fact that UW couldn't just keep the ball on the ground.

NU has 20 takeaways on the year and is beginning to gain some momentum in terms of capitalizing off of those turnovers: the 'Cats have 21 points off of turnovers over the last 2 games after failing to score any points off of turnovers through the first 5 games of the Big Ten slate.  Brian Peters has been a big reason for that, grabbing the 3 turnovers that turned into scores (taking one to the house himself), and NU will need to force multiple turnovers if they want to pull off the big upset here.

And hopefully the Wildcat seniors, including linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams along with DE Corbin Bryant and CB Justan Vaughn, will be able to use their final regular season game as some added incentive.  There isn't much else to pinpoint as a reason that the 'Cats can somehow stop the Badgers except for some spots of solid performance throughout the year and hopefully they can put together a full 60 minute effort here.

What to Look for: Special Teams

If the game is somehow close, special teams will likely have a big impact.  For how good Wisconsin is, they rank 116th in punt return defense and 94th in kick return defense and have allowed both a punt and kick return for TD (with another that was just a few yards short of a score as the half expired).  Northwestern, meanwhile, has become very respectable on punt returns (many thanks to Venric Mark), ranking 32nd nationally at over 10 yards per return.  And kick returns aren't too shabby with Mark and Stephen Simmons back there as well.

On the flipside, though, the Badgers have a threat of their own, David Gilreath, who has taken a kick return back for a TD this year and, of course, returned a punt for a TD last year against the 'Cats.  They rank 28th nationally in punt returns and are middle-of-the-pack on kick returns, but the threat is there.  Northwestern coverage teams have been more than respectable this year, ranking 10th nationally on kickoff return yards allowed and 4th nationally in punt yardage allowed, so hopefully the Wildcats can stick the Badgers deep more often than not.

Finally, the kickers.  Stefan Demos has rebounded from missed field goals against PSU and Iowa by hitting two against Illinois, moving his FG percentage up to 66.7% for the year.  Wisconsin's Philip Welch has been solid this year, although all 4 of his misses have come from beyond 40 yards, so he isn't necessarily reliable at long range.  It is notable, though, that NU's opponents have hit just 62.5% of their FG attempts this year; somehow NU continues to bring out the worst in their opponents' kickers.  And both teams have benefited from blocking kicks this year, with Wisconsin securing their 1 point margin of victory over both Iowa and Arizona State with kick blocks and NU securing their 5 point margin of victory over Central Michigan with 3 blocks; this will be an area to watch out for if the game gets close near the end.

Miscellaneous Notes

Scoring by Halves

Northwestern has outscored its opponents 169-113 in the first half, but has had a problem finishing, being outscored 113-149 in the second half.  Wisconsin, meanwhile, has outscored its opponents in each cumulative quarter this year, including scoring over 100 points in the second through fourth quarters.

Bowl Positioning

Wisconsin, of course, will essentially secure a spot in the Rose Bowl with a win and an Ohio State win and/or Michigan State loss.  Northwestern essentially needs a win in order to move itself out of the bottom bowl rung of the Big Ten bowl ladder (which will likely mean a trip to Dallas).  If the 'Cats do somehow win, a trip to the Texas Bowl is likely.

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), QB Dan Persa (Achilles tendon, out for season), RB Scott Concannon (hip, out for season), RB Jacob Schmidt (ankle, doubtful).

The 'Cats did experience a few dings before and during the Wrigley game (none due to the wall) as LB Bryce McNaul apparently was slightly injured during the week and was spelled by Damien Proby quite often on the night.  Jack DiNardo also came out of the game with an injury but looked like he should be good to go next week.  The Wildcats will obviously need as much help on that side of the ball as they can get in order to try and slow down Wisconsin.


QB Curt Phillips (knee, out for season), LB Chris Borland (shoulder, out for season), OL Josh Oglesby (knee, out for season), C Peter Konz (ankle, questionable), RB John Clay (knee, questionable).

Despite sustaining some injuries to significant playmakers, including a starting LB, 2 starting offensive linemen, and their star (and potential all-conference) RB, Wisconsin has kept humming along on both sides of the ball and, if anything, picked up the pace on offense.  Obviously this is a deep and talented football team that has weathered injuries in order to be in a position to win at least a share of the conference crown.


Northwestern 17, Wisconsin 55

The 'Cats will likely find some way to get on the board, but, unfortunately, Wisconsin looks like a team on a mission and that will likely conclude on Saturday with plenty of points on their side of the scoreboard thanks to a running attack that basically nobody has been able to stop (making NU's chances even smaller).  Northwestern would need a perfect game with everything going their way in order to pull this one off, and that is a huge issue given that the Wildcat offensive backfield is full of freshmen and they'll be stepping into a very hostile environment.

Hopefully, NU can put up an admirable showing and give the Badgers a bit of a scare in this season finale.  But, at the very least, it will be quite a learning experience for a still relatively young Wildcat squad who can hopefully build upon this year's winning record going into the bowl game and, then, the 2011 season.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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