The Wisconsin Badgers and the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats, two teams that can't afford another Big Ten loss, will meet in another crucial early-season conference clash on Saturday.
With Wisconsin and Northwestern both already having a conference loss apiece, one more setback for either will all but eliminate them from Big Ten title contention. Each is coming off a game in which it lost to Ohio State. The Badgers fell by a touchdown on Sept. 28 while the Wildcats dropped their conference opener to the Buckeyes in Evanston, Ill., on Oct. 5.
What doesn't bode well for Northwestern is the fact that this game will take place at Camp Randall Stadium. The Wildcats haven't won a game at Wisconsin since the last millennium, most recently losing in Madison in 2010 by 47 points, but this is a much different Northwestern team that we're talking about three years later.
Playing on a national stage last Saturday night, Northwestern proved it has to be taken seriously after a seesaw battle with the No. 4 Buckeyes. This could be the biggest home game for the Badgers since 2010, when they knocked off top-ranked Ohio State.
So, with both teams coming off heartbreaking losses, which can respond better? Let's get you geared up for it with a preview of one of Week 7's most intriguing games.
Day, Time: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT
Place: Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
TV: ABC or ESPN2
Spread: Wisconsin -10.5 (via Bovada.lv)
Play Northwestern straight up
The Wildcats are going to put up points, so it's just a matter of Wisconsin figuring out the best way to limit those points and play effectively when its offense in on the field. Judging by how the Wildcats can move the football both through the air and on the ground, Wisconsin will have to simply play them straight up on defense.
There's no doubt that the Badgers' strength on defense is in its front seven. If Wisconsin is able to limit Northwestern's rushing attack, perhaps that will allow the Badgers to drop more men back in coverage. A lot will depend on how much time Kain Colter, the Wildcats' triple-threat quarterback, sees on Saturday in comparison to fellow Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian.
Set up the run with the pass
Hold the phone—shouldn't that be the other way around?
You might think so, but even though the Badgers are essentially "Running Back U," Northwestern's secondary is equivalent to Swiss cheese. It is allowing 286.6 passing yards per game for the worst mark in the Big Ten, although the Wisconsin defense has amassed 11 interceptions this season.
When you consider that the Wildcats, just like every other Wisconsin opponent, will do all they can to limit the Badgers' rushing attack, that creates a perfect scenario for Badgers quarterback Joel Stave to pick apart Northwestern's defense. Should he do so, that opens up even more opportunities on the ground for Wisconsin.
Don't let it come down to the wire
The Badgers are 3-12 in their last 15 games decided by seven points or less. However, in road games or those at neutral sites, Wisconsin's record in one-possession games is 1-10. So, as you would expect, Wisconsin performs far better at home in games that go down to the wire.
Despite Northwestern's No. 19 ranking, the Wildcats haven't given the Badgers much of a problem at Camp Randall Stadium as of late. Wisconsin needs to make sure that trend continues because the odds are not in its favor in a tight game.
Throw early, throw often
The Badgers are only allowing 173.2 passing yards per game for the second-best mark in the Big Ten, but don't let that number fool you. Wisconsin has plenty of issues on the back end of its defense. Against Ohio State and Arizona State, the Badgers allowed four touchdowns through the air and 550 passing yards.
Both Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter have the ability to throw the football effectively. Even though Northwestern is ranked No. 22 in the FBS in rushing yards, the Badgers hold opponents to under 100 yards rushing per contest. It will be in the Wildcats' best interest to test the inexperienced Wisconsin secondary often.
Test Stave, target Abbrederis
Yes, the Wildcats' pass defense leaves plenty to be desired, but if they know what's good for them, they will try and put the game in the hands of Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave. That means using a majority of their manpower to stuff the run, something Northwestern has been so-so at doing in 2013.
As we saw in Wisconsin's loss at Ohio State, it's extremely difficult to slow down wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. With the Buckeyes using up to nine men to smother the line of scrimmage on defense, Abbrederis handled the one-on-one coverage, catching 10 passes for 207 yards.
The Wildcats will have to pick their poison to a degree, but making Stave beat them is likely their best bet.
Use more Siemian than Colter at quarterback
Northwestern uses a two-quarterback approach to near perfection, splitting time between Siemian and Colter. Each brings something different to the table. Colter sticks to a short passing game and relies on his feet to make plays while Siemian is more of a downfield threat.
But if the Wildcats really want to take advantage of Wisconsin's sketchy secondary, they will give more snaps to Siemian. While Colter has completed a higher percentage of passes, Siemen has 554 more yards passing and three more passing touchdowns.
Let's face it, there isn't anyone else on Wisconsin's wide receiver depth chart that comes anywhere close to Jared Abbrederis' ability. But then again, every team knows that and yet there is no easy solution to shutting him down.
Besides Abbrederis, who has 572 receiving yards through five games, not a single Wisconsin receiver has caught more than 15 passes or surpassed 131 receiving yards. Considering Northwestern's porous secondary, Abbrederis could have a field day in Week 7, maybe even another 200-yard performance.
The Badgers need more from their senior leader in the secondary. It's as simple as that.
A dropped interception by true freshman Sojourn Shelton proved to be costly, but it wouldn't have been if strong safety Dezmen Southward hadn't allowed Philly Brown to get behind him for a 40-yard touchdown to close out the first half against the Buckeyes. Those kinds of mistakes are inexcusable for someone with Southward's experience.
Not only will it be important to see if Southward can play a clean game, but quarterback-turned-safety Tanner McEvoy, who saw some extended playing time against Ohio State, could see his role increase against Northwestern after his last nice performance.
Sophomore stud running back Melvin Gordon wasn't too pleased with only rushing for 74 yards against the Buckeyes, even though a knee injury cut his night short after three quarters.
The good news is that the injury was minor and Gordon will be ready to go against Northwestern. He is also extremely motivated after being disappointed in his showing against the Big Ten's best and eager to lead his team to a prestigious bowl game, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Gordon has dropped from first to eighth in rushing yards per game in the FBS. Look for him to work his way back near the top of that category with a special performance against the Wildcats.
Trevor Siemian may provide a more intimidating threat in the passing game, but senior quarterback Kain Colter can do it all.
Colter is the second-leading rusher on Northwestern with 253 yards and has seven touchdowns through five games. But No. 2 has proved he can get it done with his arm as well, completing a remarkable 83.0 percent of his passes this season.
He can also line up at wide receiver where he caught a touchdown pass against Ohio State.
As a senior, Colter has a great grasp of the Wildcats' offense and his presence translates positively to his teammates. With Colter on the field, the Wisconsin defense will have to account for several different threats, most notably the option attack.
After missing three games due to injury, senior running back Venric Mark returned against Ohio State, rushing 17 times for 60 yards while catching four passes for 43 yards. Mark is a Darren Sproles-type, only standing 5'8" as a tailback who can catch the ball out of the backfield.
He's a welcome addition to this Northwestern lineup, as leading rusher Treyvon Green will slide back into a backup role. Not only will the Badgers have to need to watch out for Mark in the option, but his big-play ability also spreads to the passing game.
For as many yards as the Wildcats have conceded through the air this season, they have been opportunistic. Northwestern has picked off opposing quarterbacks 11 times already and two of those interceptions belong to strong-side linebacker Collin Ellis.
Ellis is excellent at the rope-a-dope technique, although the risk of allowing big plays comes with gambling on creating turnovers. Ellis is the Wildcats' third-leading tackler and tied for second in interceptions this season while leading Northwestern in pass breakups.
His versatility makes him the heart and soul of this defense. Look for Ellis to impact the game in multiple facets.
The Badgers' Gary Anderson on the Wildcats' dual quarterbacks, via an ESPN Big Ten tweet:
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen says thing that worries him most about Northwestern's 2-QB system is when they're both on the field together.
Andersen on sticking with Kyle French in the kicking game even after missing a chip-shot field goal against the Buckeyes, according to Benjamin Worgull of The Badger Nation:
Kyle has done the best in practice by far. If he made one more kick...we'd be saying he's done a pretty good job. He did miss one in the Ohio State game, and that's not where we want to be. We're just kind of working ourselves through that.
Pat Fitzgerald on the UW rivalry, per Worgull:
Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland on if he was rooting for Northwestern against the Buckeyes, via Jeff Potrykus of the Journal Sentinel:
I was. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that but I’m sure everyone could assume.
Northwestern leads the Big Ten in takeaways while Wisconsin protects the ball better than any team in the conference. It's a classic 'something's got to give' scenario.
In 2010, the Badgers lit up the Wildcats at Camp Randall Stadium, dropping 70 points on a Northwestern team that finished 7-6 on the season. While there aren't many players left from that Wildcats' squad, head coach Pat Fitzgerald was there and you better believe he hasn't forgotten what happened three years ago in Madison, Wisc.
Northwestern is a far better team now while Wisconsin is at a bit of a crossroad. With the odds of returning to the Rose Bowl already grim, just how motivated will the Badgers be to continue plowing forward?
Well, it is only Week 7 and this is college football, after all. Anything can happen, and for either team to fall to two conference losses would be a kiss of death in regards to winning the Big Ten.
If this game is played in Evanston, Ill., maybe we have a different outcome. But Northwestern playing in Madison spells trouble for the Wildcats, and these two teams are as close as they come.
The home-field advantage, Wisconsin's ability to protect the football and a motivated Melvin Gordon will overcome a hungover Northwestern team that relies too heavily on creating turnovers.
Prediction: Wisconsin 45, Northwestern 31