MADISON – The road to the Big Ten championship game for West Division contenders currently resembles rush hour in Chicago.
Traffic and brake lights as far as the eyes can see.
Saturday could begin to alleviate the congestion.
UW (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) faces first-place Northwestern (4-3, 4-1) at 11 a.m. in Evanston.
Purdue (4-3, 3-1), fresh off a 49-20 victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State, plays at Michigan State (4-3, 2-2).
Iowa (6-1, 3-1), which is probably still miffed over an 11-point home loss to UW, plays at Penn State (5-2, 2-2).
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UW-Northwestern isn’t an annual trophy game and the rivalry doesn’t carry the cache or vitriol of Michigan-Michigan State.
Yet the games generally are entertaining and since 2000 the teams have split the last 12 meetings.
The fact that at least a share of first place will be on the line Saturday at Ryan Field adds a rare layer of extra importance.
“It just adds a little bit of extra grit to the game,” UW senior offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. “It’s always a physical, rivalry type feel to that game.
“But when you know what is on the line it just makes it a little more special.”
Since 2000, UW is 5-2 at home against the Wildcats and 1-4 in Evanston.
The lone victory was a 21-7 decision in 2016, Paul Chryst’s second season as head coach.
“It is always real tough to play there,” senior fullback Alec Ingold said. “Those guys you can watch on tape and you know exactly what you’re going to get. They are going to do it well.
“It’s going to be a fistfight and we know it. We’ve just got to carry this confidence in and be ready for next week.”
Curiously, Northwestern this season is 3-0 on the road and 1-3 at home.
UW and Northwestern both won last week, though neither team painted a masterpiece.
UW’s run defense allowed too much real estate in a 49-20 victory over Illinois. Northwestern averaged just 3.4 yards per play, quarterback Clayton Thorson completed only 50% of his attempts (17 of 34) for 150 yards and the Wildcats scored on just 3 of 13 possessions in an 18-15 victory at Rutgers.
“Sometimes you don’t have your ‘A’ game,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the victory. “I talked to the guys after the game. I said: ‘We’re in baseball playoff time right now.’
“A pitcher goes out on the mound, warmed up great, had a great week of prep, like we did. And then all of a sudden things aren’t working the way you want them to work. You still have to find a way to keep inching to the end and get the win. Or get it to your bullpen in baseball terms.
“That’s what we did. We had some really good things happen today and we had some self-inflicted wounds. It’s a team that’s been through a lot of battles and found a way to get it done.”
The Wildcats generally got it done on the legs of tailback Justin Jackson in each of the previous four seasons.
Jackson broke the 1,000-yard mark in each of his four seasons and finished with 5,283 yards and 39 touchdowns.
Freshman tailback Isaiah Bowser rushed 24 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Rutgers but the Wildcats enter the week last in the Big Ten and 127th nationally in rushing at 78.1 yards per game.
Thorson has had to carry the offense for most of the season.
Third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game, he has attempted at least 34 passes in five of the Wildcats’ seven games. That includes 52 attempts in a loss to Akron, 47 in a victory over Michigan State and 64 in a victory over Nebraska.
Senior linebacker T.J. Edwards, like his teammates, has enjoyed the rivalry.
“They are really good,” he said. “We are really good. The better team that day is going to win.
“That is the fun part of those games. They know what they’re going to get from us and we have a good idea of what we’re going to get from them.
“It is truly winning your one-on-one matchup and whoever does the better job executing that day is going to win.”