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Wisconsin football: Previewing Badgers vs. Northwestern Wildcats

A key Big Ten West divisional match-up awaits the No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday when they take on Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston.

Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) last won at Ryan Field back in 2016, a 21-7 win over the Wildcats that broke a four-game losing streak in Evanston that dated back to 2003.

This time around, both squads continue to battle to stay in solid position for the West division title.

Northwestern (4-3, 4-1) comes off an unimpressive 18-15 win on the road at Rutgers last Saturday where it only gained 278 yards on 81 plays.

Offense

  • Scoring offense: 24.3 points per game (103rd in nation)
  • Rushing offense: 78.1 yards per game (127th in nation)
  • Passing offense: 296.3 yards per game (19th in nation)
  • Total offense: 374.4 yards per game (89th in nation)
  • 3rd-down conversions: 46-of-116 (40 percent, 65th in nation)

Looking at the stats on paper, quarterback Clayton Thorson truly leads a one-dimensional offense at the moment. Despite being a Top-20 unit in the passing game, the offense as a whole is in the bottom third of the FBS in total yards.

That is due in part to not necessarily having a standout running back after Jeremy Larkin medically retired from football. On the season, Northwestern has rushed for 547 yards on 234 carries; by comparison, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor has rushed for 1109 yards alone. Last week against Rutgers, however, Isaiah Bowser ran for over 100 yards in the win against Rutgers.

Thorson has completed over 61 percent of his passes for 1,905 yards with nine touchdowns but also seven interceptions. Wide receivers Flynn Nagel (56 receptions, 693 yards, three touchdowns) and Bennett Skowronek (29, 337, one) are big targets for the signal caller, as is superback Cameron Green (31, 284, three). It appears Skowronek is also not on Northwestern’s injury report released on Thursday:

We asked Inside NU’s Caleb Friedman earlier this week about the Northwestern offense:

Thorson and the offense have had their moments, especially against Michigan State and in the second half against Nebraska, but there’s been inconsistency there too. Some weeks, Thorson looks like a pro and the offense is efficient and explosive. Some weeks, Thorson misses open receivers left and right, like he did last week against Rutgers, and the offense is totally stagnant.

Again, a mixed bag this season.

Defense

  • Scoring defense: 24.6 points per game (T-57th in the nation)
  • Rushing defense: 143.3 yards per game (49th in the nation)
  • Passing defense: 229.7 yards per game (T-76th in the nation)
  • Total defense: 373.0 yards per game (T-56th in the nation)
  • 3rd-down conversions allowed: 36-of-107 (34 percent … 32nd in the nation)

When asked what he sees on film from and who stands out on the Northwestern defense and its line, redshirt sophomore left tackle Cole Van Lanen looked broadly.

“I think they all stand out. They have a really good defense,” Van Lanen said on Tuesday. “Their d-line plays their defense really well. They know their scheme. Honestly it is going to be a battle between us and them. It’s going to be fun, and it’ll be a fun game to play.”

A pair of linebackers leads Northwestern in tackles this season in Blake Gallagher (68 tackles, four tackles for loss) and Paddy Fisher (54, 1.5), with the latter named a captain despite being just a sophomore.

Senior Nate Hall has only played in four games this year, but if he is available this week as noted by the updated injury report from Northwestern, he could provide a boost. He has 26 tackles on the year, 1.5 for loss, along with an interception.

On the line, defensive end Joe Gaziano is the name to watch. The junior leads the team in tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (4.5).

“He’s disruptive and a good player,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday. “That whole front, we’ve seen that front before, and he’s, they’re good. You see it. They’re powerful, there’s good strength. They get on edges. They’re not, kind of like what we were talking about with ‘Hank’ [defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz], I think there’s a little bit of that personality. They’re not just going to do one thing. They know their change-ups and I think that’s what makes them effective [in the] run game but also like you alluded to in the pass game. You see them disrupt whether’s it’s four-man pressures. You see it with some of the three. They’re affecting the quarterback, and that’s a credit to them and a challenge for us.”

Senior Jordan Thompson has added two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss this season as well.

In the secondary, safety J.R Pace is tied for 12th in the country in interceptions (three) while tallying five pass break-ups and three tackles for loss through seven games. Senior cornerback Montre Hartage has recorded eight pass break-ups already this season with an interception.

Special teams

Kicker Drew Luckenbaugh has stepped in and hit 3-of-4 field goals and all five extra point attempts, while punter Jake Collins has averaged 39.2 yards per boot in 40 attempts with 13 inside the 20-yard line.

Kyric McGovern averages 22.7 yards per return with a long of 29 against Michigan State, while Riley Lees has taken 14 punts back for 81 total yards (5.8 yards per return average).

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