Five years ago, in 2013, Northwestern faced off against Ohio State in the biggest game Northwestern had played in since the 1995 Rose Bowl. Northwestern hosted College GameDay, and the atmosphere at Ryan Field exceeded all expectations of a Northwestern football game. Northwestern had real momentum and a chance to establish itself as a member of Big Ten’s elite on national television. Unfortunately, NU lost in a heartbreaking shootout.
Today, Northwestern plays the biggest game since that Ohio State game in 2013. While this game will not have the glitz, glam, or glory that the OSU game had, this is a monumental game for Northwestern. NU has had this game circled on its schedule since they lost 33-24 at Camp Randall last season. The winner of today’s game will be the heavy favorite to win the Big Ten West (assuming NU beats Iowa).
In today’s game, Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, is believed to be out. This means sophomore Jack Coan will start for Wisconsin. I do not know that this truly changes much for Wisconsin, though. Wisconsin is going to try to pound the ball down Northwestern’s throat. Northwestern’s defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz, employs a 4-3 scheme, relying on the front four to generate pressure on the quarterback. He likes to use the linebackers in coverage, more so than in a blitz scheme. Today, I would like to see NU stack the box against Wisconsin and force Jack Coan to beat NU through the air. If Coan does better than anticipated, NU can adjust, but in such a meaningful game, I want NU to come out aggressive. Also, Northwestern’s outside linebacker Nate Hall is expected to return today, so he will add a boost to the linebacker unit. If Northwestern can contain Jonathan Taylor, then the Wildcats should be able to win.
Offensively, Northwestern is positioned among the worst in the country when running the ball since RB Jeremy Larkin retired earlier in the season. While Northwestern does not have a very talented running back on the roster now, part of the blame falls on the offensive line. Adam Cushing’s unit has been unable to hold blocks in the run game. Freshman Isaiah Bowser received the lion’s share of the carries last week against Rutgers, and he produced as he ran for 108 yards on 24 carries. I am hoping Northwestern continues to make him the featured back today. Regardless, Northwestern’s run game NEEDS to be somewhat productive for the offense to move in this game. If NU completely abandons the run game early because it is not working, Wisconsin will have a great shot. NU needs to try to establish some semblance of a respectable run game, and this will allow Clayton Thorson to be more effective as Wisconsin will not anticipate a pass every single play. For Clayton Thorson, he is a senior, and he is playing in his biggest game at NU. He knows the meaning of this game, and I expect him to bounce back from his poor game at Rutgers last week. If Thorson does not throw an interception in this game, or NU wins the turnover margin, I like NU’s chances today.
Overall, if Northwestern stacks the box defensively and sprinkles in a nice running game to complement the passing game, I think Northwestern will have a great shot. Ultimately, I think Northwestern will pull this one out as the team has a tendency to play up to competition. The team will also come out playing with a definite sense of urgency.
Prediction: Northwestern 24, Wisconsin 20
Follow Williams on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America