Don’t look now, but Wisconsin‘s visit to Northwestern on Saturday could decide which team represents the Big Ten West in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. The Badgers (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) bounced back from the disappointment at Michigan two weeks ago by running over, through and around the Illinois Fighting Illini to the tune of a 49-20 victory at home last week. With the win, Wisconsin remains in prime position to claim its third straight division crown, although teams like Northwestern as well as Purdue and Iowa can’t be dismissed.
The Wildcats (4-3, 4-1) are riding high on a three-game winning streak, but it’s their most recent victory that has created cause for concern. Last Saturday’s game at Rutgers, the worst team in the conference, didn’t exactly go according to plan, as Northwestern had to overcome a 12-7 halftime deficit and Clayton Thorson’s worst passing game of the season just to make it out of Piscataway, N.J., with an 18-15 come-from-behind win.
While the Badgers have made going to Indianapolis a habit, playing in five of the seven Big Ten Championship Games and winning twice (2011, ’12), the Wildcats haven’t won a share of the conference title since 2000. A victory over the reigning division champs would get them one step closer to Indianapolis.
Wisconsin at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Slowing Wisconsin down on the ground
Northwestern’s struggles against the run are no secret, which is not a good sign headed into Saturday’s matchup with the Badgers. Even against a Rutgers team that struggles to move the ball, NU gave up 107 rushing yards and a touchdown. Compare that to Wisconsin, which leads the Big Ten and is fourth nationally in rushing offense at 282.1 yards per game. Once again, Jonathan Taylor leads the way, as the sophomore is No. 1 in the nation with 158.4 rushing yards per game. Last week against Illinois, the Badgers piled up 357 yards and scored four times on the ground with Taylor responsible for 159 of those yards. The Wildcats know what Wisconsin is going to do when it has the ball. But knowing the Badgers are going to run the ball and stopping them from being successful at it are two entirely different things.
2. Northwestern has issues with its own running game
Against Rutgers, Wildcats freshman running back Isaiah Bowser ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns. It made him the first Northwestern back to gain over 100 rushing yards since Jeremy Larkin ran for 121 against Duke back in Week 2. Larkin retired from football due to cervical stenosis just a few weeks later. Bowser also became the first player get over 20 carries in a game since Larkin did so against Akron just before announcing his retirement.
Against Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, the Wildcats averaged only 30 rushing yards per game. If NU can get another solid game from Bowser, it can help keep Wisconsin’s offense off the field and minimize the Badgers’ effectiveness to some degree.
3. Wildcats can’t forget about the quarterback either
As important as it is to key and slow down Wisconsin’s running game, Northwestern has to be wary of Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook as well. Even though Rutgers’ Artur Sitkowski completed just 15 of his 31 attempts for 81 yards last week, it wasn’t because he was under pressure all game long. The Wildcats managed just two sacks, which has been a consistent issue for their defense all season. Not only that, but Hornibrook also represents a significant upgrade talent-wise compared to Sitkowski.
When Wisconsin isn’t pounding the ball down its opponents’ throats, Hornibrook catches them off guard with simple, accurate throws that move the chains and occasionally produce a big play downfield. Against Illinois last week, he completed 13-of-22 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns. For the season, the junior is completing 60 percent of his throws and has 11 touchdown passes compared to six interceptions.
Wisconsin has won three of the last five meetings with Northwestern by a combined score of 110-70. Northwestern also is struggling at home this year with a record of 1-3 and has been outscored 111-92 in games at Ryan Field. In their wins, the Badgers are averaging close to 40 points per game, and the reality is that Northwestern’s defense doesn’t compare to the two teams that beat Wisconsin — Michigan and BYU. Factor in the Wildcats’ defensive struggles, the issues on offense, and the fact that last week’s win over Rutgers didn’t inspire too much confidence, and it appears that Wisconsin is poised to leave Evanston with no worse than a share of first place in the Big Ten West.
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 17
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He’s also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He’s a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.