When: Sat. Sept. 30, 2017; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Madison, Wis.; Camp Randall Stadium (80,321)
All-Time Series: Wisconsin leads 58-35-5
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won 21-7 (Nov. 5, 2016)
Line: Wisconsin (-16.5)
The Northwestern Wildcats had September 30 circled on their calendars for a long time. Really, the entire Big Ten had this date circled.
It was the day when everyone would know whether the Northwestern Wildcats — yes those Northwestern Wildcats — are indeed Big Ten West contenders.
The Wildcats certainly believed the stars were aligning for them. They thought they had the right mix of skill player talent and the schedule breaking their way to win the division and have that breakthrough. Momentum from their bowl win was fresh in everyone’s minds.
Those dreams did not completely die, but doubt grew through the nonconference season. Northwestern’s offensive line proved to be as much of a concern as advertised. And the team did not ever really impress in its non-conference games.
Sure beating Bowling Green 49-7 was a historic margin for Northwestern, but nobody is confusing that for a meaningful win. The specter of the Duke game still hangs heavy over this team.
And so a season of promise turned quickly into another “just Northwestern” season.
The Wildcats have the talent and the skill to be a bowl team, but likely not enough to reach that mythical place known as Big Ten contention. Funny how expectations change.
The reality though is the Wildcats can change that narrative once again. The game they circled as the one that would determine their ability to contend for the Big Ten title is still that. The trip to Camp Randall Stadium to face the Wisconsin Badgers is as daunting as ever.
This is still the game that may determine who wins the Big Ten West — even if some other contenders have quietly emerged.
Northwestern can change the narrative once again. With one game. That game they circled long ago against Wisconsin. The game that helps set their course in the Big Ten. The game that determines whether this team can accomplish their long-range goal or make it another season.
That is how every week in the Big Ten may end up, right? Northwestern can still accomplish their goals. they just have to go 1-0 first.
1 Burning Question: Is the offensive line ready for Big Ten play?
Northwestern’s offensive line has been a big question mark the entire season and the non-conference schedule did very little to ease those concerns.
The Wildcats averaged 160.3 rushing yards per game and has given up seven sacks. Against Duke, the best team NU has played to this point, Northwestern had just 191 yards of total offense and gave up 4.0 sacks.
And that was Duke.
Duke is not a bad team, but Duke is not Wisconsin.
Clayton Thorson did not have a lot of time to throw in that game in Durham and Justin Jackson was a non-factor. The Wildcats simply could not move the ball and the team cracked in the 41-17 loss.
It is not likely Northwestern plays that poorly again, but the miscommunication along the offensive line, the struggles to give Thorson time in the pocket and the difficulty getting Justin Jackson interior runs and downfield were chronic through the non-conference.
Wisconsin will be Northwestern’s biggest challenge and the whole offensive gameplan hinges on the line getting the job done.
2 Key Stats
4 — Northwestern has just four sacks through three games this season. And there is not a lot of other pressure to report from the Wildcats’ revamped front seven.
With the secondary dealing with significant injury issues, Northwestern’s inability to get a good push has been a huge issue for the defense. They simply do not get a ton of pressure and it leaves some gaping holes in the watered-down secondary.
Some of this might be because Northwestern is keeping its pressure and blitz packages secret, running a vanilla defensive playbook to start the season. They could unleash themselves a bit more coming off the bye week.
But in all likelihood, Northwestern will try to remain solid and make quick tackles, keeping the offense in front of them.
Eventually, they will need to make a play. And that means getting some pressure on Alex Hornibrook and the Wisconsin backfield.
70 — That is Hornibrook’s completion percentage in non-conference play.
Hornibrook had one magical game against BYU two weekends ago, completing a crazy 18-of-19 passes in the blowout win. The week before was a nightmare for him.
Which version shows up against a pretty good Wildcats pass defense that has allowed opponents to complete just 57.1 percent of their passes.
If Hornibrook is allowed to complete more than 65 percent of his passes in this game, that is great news for the Badgers and really bad news for the Wildcats. It likely means the Badgers run game is running wild and Wisconsin’s pass game is operating on all cylinders…and when that happens it is not good news for opposing teams.
3 4 Key Players
Garrett Dickerson, Northwestern Superback — Wisconsin gets all the talk for its tight ends, but Northwestern has a nice run of tight ends going too. Garrett Dickerson has been solid for the Wildcats so far this year with a team-high 14 receptions for 188 yards. Dickerson is Thorson’s security blanket and often his dump-down option. The Wildcats may target Dickerson underneath if the offensive line struggles. Not to mention, Dickerson should be valuable as a blocker.
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin Running Back — Who leads the Big Ten in rushing yards per game? It is not any of the big names coming into the season nor highly touted freshman J.K. Dobbins, but Wisconsin’s own frosh sensation in Jonathan Taylor. He has started the last two games, partly due to injury but also because he has flashed potential in the opener. Taylor ripped off the fourth best single game in Wisconsin freshman history in his first start in Week 2. His five rushing touchdowns also lead the Big Ten. Can he continue the Big Ten-best numbers against Big Ten competition?
Tyler Lancaster, Northwestern Defensive Tackle — It is a big game and so the big players need to step up. And there are very few players as big as Tyler Lancaster. Lancaster has been solid for the Wildcats up the middle. He has done a good job stopping the run and plugging the hole in the middle of the line. Lancaster takes up a lot of space and has made some good plays in the backfield against the run. He will have to do that again this week and force Wisconsin to the perimeter, where maybe Northwestern’s speed can gain an advantage. Lancaster does not have to total a ton of tackles, but he needs to make his presence known by forcing the Badgers offense in the direction Northwestern wants it to go and getting pressure in the backfield.
Garrett Dooley, Wisconsin Outside Linebacker — Wisconsin has not gotten to the quarterback a ton…at least until Week 3 against BYU. The Cougars were starting a first-time starter and had offensive line issues. If Wisconsin wants to keep progressing defensively, ramping up the pressure from two new starting outside linebackers in 2017, of which Garrett Dooley is one, would be a great place to start Big Ten play at. Dooley comes in with just one sack, but no player on Wisconsin’s roster has more than two of the eight already piled up this season. He also has eight tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. There is a lot of potential, but now is the time for him to realize it against that Northwestern offensive line you talked about earlier.