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.
Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 21
2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know
What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected.
It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line.
All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams.
5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten
That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game.
Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame.
Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play.
On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.
4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance
It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances.
Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game.
OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013.
A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy.
3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game
The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting.
Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having.
It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season.
As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year.
Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…
2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season
One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year.
Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13.
Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis?
1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game
A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time.
There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016.
In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team.
How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day.
WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena
After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season.
On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener.
Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside.
Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win
Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon.
The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.
It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program.
It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football.
The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.
Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts.
Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day.
But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers.
The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers.
Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game.
But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.
But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play.
Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time.
Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own.
It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt.
This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six.
Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern.
The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh.
For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players.
The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility.
Thorson dials up best against MSU once again
As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing.
That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans.
Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games.
History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes.
It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite.
At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense.
Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game.
Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for.
Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too.
But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game.
Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter.
It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game.
He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19.
The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play.
Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well.