The teams: The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (6-3, 4-2) vs the Northwestern Wildcats (3-6, 1-4)
The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: ESPN2 with Clay Matvick and Rocky Boiman in the booth and Tiffany Blackmon on the sideline.
The last time: Northwestern forced five turnovers and found just enough offense to get a 17-7 win in Evanston last season.
The series: Wisconsin leads 60-37-5
The line: Wisconsin -24.5
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Filling the void
Wisconsin lost leading rusher Chez Mellusi for the season with a knee injury this week. The junior had accounted for 40.5% of the team’s carries and rushing yards through the first nine games. That is a lot of production to replace, and it will not all fall solely on Braelon Allen to pick up the slack. The true freshman has become a featured part of the offense in the last five games and that may expand a little bit. But he is not going to go from carrying 16 times per game to 30. So, who will step up to fill what is left of that void?
Everyone should be looking to sophomore Julius Davis. After a rough first two years in Madison with injuries, Davis is now healthy and fully committed. He rushed for 32 yards on seven carries last week and his opportunities will continue to grow against the Wildcats.
Also keep an eye on true freshman Jackson Acker, who made his debut last week with 24 yards and a touchdown.
2) Run, run, run
There is not a team in the Big Ten that is stopping the run worse than Northwestern. The Wildcats are giving up 224 yards per game on the ground and all but two of their opponents have rushed for at least 179 yards. That included Nebraska putting up 427, Michigan State going for 326 and Minnesota breaking off 308. That does not bode well considering the Badgers are averaging 270 yards (5.3 yards per carry) in their five-game winning streak.
You can be sure, even without Mellusi, that Wisconsin will force Northwestern to show they can stop the run. It is a good bet the Wildcats will not be able to.
3) Passing game signs of life
Graham Mertz and the passing game showed flashes of putting it all together in wins over Army, Purdue, and Iowa. Mertz started off those games scorching hot only to cool off dramatically in contest. But last week against Rutgers the Wisconsin quarterback found his rhythm after an early interception and never looked back.
He has been particularly good on play action this season and that continued against the Scarlet Knights, while he also went a combined 4-for-7 on third and fourth down, including a pair of touchdowns. Unlike previous outings, he got everyone involved. Kendric Pryor had four catches, Chimere Dike had three, Jake Ferguson had a couple and Danny Davis took his lone grab 72 yards for a touchdown.
While at least acknowledging it was against a Rutgers team that is far from elite, it was still the type of effort Wisconsin and its fans had been looking for the entire season. It is one that must at least give defensive coordinators pause when deciding how to defend the Badgers. They will certainly still focus on stopping the run, but if Mertz and company can make teams pay for that commitment like they did against Rutgers, the offense becomes that much more difficult to prepare for.
4) I dare you
While Northwestern’s run defense is putrid, there is not a better run stuffing unit in the country than Wisconsin. The Badgers are allowing 54.7 yards per game, which is 26 yards better than the No. 2 team, and the best mark by any team since at least 2009. No school in the last 12 seasons has allowed less than 2.0 yards per carry for an entire year and right now teams are averaging 1.9 against Wisconsin.
At this point it is essentially a waste of a down to run against them, but Northwestern will try with running back Evan Hull (791 yards, 6.2 ypc) because being one-dimensional against a Jim Leonhard defense is the kiss of death. There is nothing Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator loves more than cooking up some exotic pressures on third-and-long and letting his guys go eat. It has led to 27 sacks, including seven for sophomore Nick Herbig.
Northwestern will start Andrew Marty for a second straight week. He gives the Wildcats their best chances against Wisconsin’s pass rush, as he is the closest thing to a dual threat that Northwestern can put out there. But his passing left a lot to be desired against Iowa, which picked him off three times.
5) Tough out
Wisconsin and Northwestern do not play for a rivalry trophy and the series between the two is not on the same level as the Badgers matchups with Iowa and Minnesota. However, unlike the series between those teams in which Wisconsin is 25-6 since 2005, the Badgers are just 6-6 against the Wildcats in the same time period.
“We’ve had problems with them, and they’ve beaten us. I don’t think Northwestern is a team that any of us really love. I think there is a bit of a rivalry there. Both teams kind of have that chip on their shoulder whenever we play against each other.”
In the six games since Chryst took over at Wisconsin the average margin of victory for the winning team has been 10.3 points and neither has won by more than 14. As well as the Badgers are playing right now, a blowout might not be in the cards.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
Wisconsin’s defense leads the country in total defense, rushing defense and third-down defense, while also sitting in the top-5 for scoring defense and passing defense.
Wisconsin is 17-4 in the month of November under Paul Chryst, with an average margin of victory of 22.4 points.
Wisconsin is favored by 24.5 points, which his tied for the largest spread against Northwestern in the last 26 years. The Badgers have not covered a spread that high against a Big Ten team since 2016.