Saturday sees the Wisconsin football travel to Evanston to take on Northwestern in a battle of two unbeaten teams in the Big Ten West.
The 2020 season has been the most disrupted in recent history. Through the disruption and the setback has come intrigue and the unexpected. The unexpected is exactly what we have this Saturday as 10th-ranked Wisconsin football faces No. 19 Northwestern in a battle of unbeaten teams in the Big Ten West.
Wisconsin football knows better than most the disruption that the ongoing global pandemic can cause to a program. Following the season opening win over Illinois, the Badgers had to suspend football activities following an outbreak that at one point saw 27 positive tests in the program.
As it struggled to contain and control the virus, the possibility that they would fail to make the minimum number of games to qualify for the Big Ten title game seemed genuine.
It is just one of a confluence of factors that make Wisconsin football being unbeaten in mid-November so unexpected as they prepare for a crucial matchup at the Northwestern Wildcats.
Consider the losses that the program sustained at the end of 2019.
Jonathan Taylor, for three years the heart and soul of the Wisconsin football offense, the crucial link in the offensive line Tyler Biadasz, their leading receiver Quintez Cephus and then on the defensive side of the ball, their two best players in Chris Orr and Zack Baun.
It’s a lot of star power to lose and still hope to repeat the 10-win season that Paul Chryst’s team achieved in 2019.
The Badgers have rallied behind redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. The highly regarded signal-caller was imperious in the 45-7 season opener over Illinois and although Wisconsin football leant on the ground game to overcome Michigan 49-11, Mertz comes into Saturday’s showdown with a stat line of 32/43 (74 percent), 375 yards, seven touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Wisconsin started last season with defensive excellence and despite the upheaval and disruption, 2020 has been no different. They’ve allowed just nine points per game and under 220 yards of offense on average per game. Freshman linebacker Nick Herbig has been excellent, logging six tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, and breaking up one pass in just two games.
Under Chryst, Wisconsin football has been to a bowl game every season, been ranked at some point in every season, and has a 54:16 winning record. Although the dominating manner of Wisconsin’s start to the season is unexpected, they will always be considered a contender for the Big Ten Championship Game.
The same can not be said of their opponent on Saturday.
After a 3-9 season in 2019, the worst of head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s career, expectation wasn’t particularly high for the Wildcats ahead of the season. Despite that expectation, Northwestern are ranked 19th, the highest they’ve been since 2017, and off to their first 4-0 start since 2015.
That season they reached their highest ranking under Fitzgerald on their way to a 10-3 season that ended in defeat in the Outback Bowl.
The Wildcats got 2020 off to an incredible start beating up on Maryland team that has gone on to win their next two games. The 43-3 win has been followed by close fought victories over Iowa (21-20), Nebraska (21-13), and then a 27-20 win over a Purdue team that been undefeated ahead of the game.
One of the main components of this 2020 turnaround for Northwestern is Indiana transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey. The Wildcats were a hot mess at the position last season, and although Ramsey won’t break any passing records this season for a team that likes to run the ball, he has steadied the ship with a 65.8 completion percentage and six touchdowns.
Ramsey has also contributed 122 yards to a ground game that has Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson splitting carries and each approaching 200 rushing yards for the season. Wide receiver Kyric McGowan has also got involved, with a team leading 6.3 yards per carry for 88 yards.
The Wildcats have been defensively strong this season. Linebacker Paddy Fisher is highly regarded as an NFL Draft prospect but Chris Bergin leads the team in tackles and has produced 2.5 tackles for loss, three passes defended and an interception so far this season. They have a dependable defensive back room with Brandon Joseph leading the team in interceptions and Greg Newsome II leading the team in passes defended.
Ahead of the game, Wisconsin football has the series lead in the head-to-head record, 60-36-5. The Badgers won 13 straight between 1972 and 1984, also winning the most recent matchup between the two. Jonathan Taylor rumbled for 119 yards and the Badgers defense had two scores as Wisconsin football beat the Wildcats 24-15.
Will we see a repeat result of Saturday night or will Northwestern create another surprise in this most unexpected season?
Keys to Victory
This battle of the unbeaten Big Ten teams is going to be largely fought on the ground. Despite Mertz’s headlining performance against Illinois, Wisconsin football still likes to run the rock and so does Northwestern.
The Badgers have rushed over 50 times per game on average this season and have been successful doing so. They’re averaging five yards per carry, for an average of 261.5 yards and three touchdowns per game. Running back Nakia Watson appears to be the heir apparent to Taylor for Wisconsin football and leads the way with 31 carries and 127 yards.
However, both Jalen Berger and wide receiver Danny Davis have shown impressive contributions with the former averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Northwestern running back Drake Anderson scored the Wildcats’ opening touchdown in last year’s clash and you can expect him to lead the Northwestern rushing attack against Wisconsin football on Saturday. He leads the team with 4.6 yards per carry for 198 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats are averaging 48 rushing attempts a game, with 174 yards and two touchdowns on average.
Whilst both teams like to get the ground game going, they will face stiff defensive opposition. Wisconsin football is only allowing an average of 89 yards per game in 2020 with the Northwestern rush defense equally as impressive in allowing just 91.8 yards per game.
There is every chance that Northwestern could go toe to toe with Wisconsin football in the ground game. In the passing game, I’m not so sure. The Wildcats have allowed 210 passing yards and a touchdown on average through their four game winning streak whereas the Badgers have allowed under 130 yards and forced just a 44 percent completion percentage out of their opposition so far.
Some Mertz magic could well be the difference maker in this Big Ten battle.
The Big Ten is where the best action is at this weekend, and this battle of the unbeaten teams between Wisconsin football and Northwestern is no exception.
In many respects both teams have exceeded preseason expectations, especially with the nature that Wisconsin football have rolled over their two opponents this season whilst facing as many COVID-19 challenges as any team in college football.
As impressive and unexpected as Northwestern’s 4-0 start to the season has been, Wisconsin football should be too strong for them on both sides of the ball. Although Northwestern might hold Wisconsin football under 40 points for the first time this season, I expect the Badgers to exert their dominance and hand the Wildcats their first defeat of the season.
Final Score: Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 21