Riding a two game winning streak (with both wins coming over Big Ten foes on the road), Northwestern (7-4, 4-3) comes back to Evanston for its 2009 regular season finale against BCS No. 16 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2), who are fresh off of a 45-24 beatdown of Michigan last week in Madison.
Both teams have locked up bowl berths following the season, and this game is all about positioning for the postseason. The Wildcats want to climb up the bowl ladder as high as possible, while the Badgers are looking to all but secure a January bowl and stay in the BCS at-large fringe (which could come to fruition if both Penn State and Iowa lose and UW wins out).
Northwestern and Wisconsin haven't met since the 2006 season, Coach Fitzgerald's first as head coach, and NU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will have his first chance at revenge after being let go from the Badgers' coaching ranks following that year. And the Badgers will be looking for their first win in Evanston in a decade, with their last coming in their 1999 Big Ten Championship season.
The Wildcats' resurgence late in the year has come thanks to the defense, who rank 14th nationally with 24 turnovers gained on the year, and are ranked fifth in the conference in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, and scoring defense. The NU defense has looked much better in recent weeks when compared to some games earlier in the year as multiple players are now closer to 100 percent on the injury front.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has continued to steamroll towards another double-digit win season on the back of their powerful rushing attack that is tops in the conference and ranks 16th nationally, churning out 208 yards per game.
RB John Clay has continued the Badgers' string of strong running backs, as he has already racked up 1,124 yards on the ground this season and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 112.4 yards per game.
Those facts set up an interesting matchup with the Northwestern defense looking to contain a Wisconsin attack that isn't fancy but finds a way to run over its opponent week after week.
And although these two teams haven't met in a couple of years, there is a level of rivalry between these two schools that are separated by just 145 miles. They are evenly matched at 5-5 in their last 10 meetings and had high-scoring battles where NU came out on top in both 2000 and 2005.
Look out for another hard-nosed battle as both teams lay it all on the line for their final Big Ten game of the year, and even though the postseason picture has begun to form, both squads want to bolster their position in the eyes of the bowl committees.
Wisconsin by 6.
Who Should Win
Wisconsin. The Badgers have the Big Ten's best ground attack and the conference's leading rusher and a reliable and efficient quarterback to go along with that (QB Scott Tolzien ranks 34th nationally in pass efficiency).
And, of course, they feature very strong line play on both sides of the football, ranking fourth in the conference in both scoring and total defense.
Their only two losses this season came to the two teams that are clearly the top two in the Big Ten: Ohio State and Iowa, and Wisconsin had a shot at winning both of those games.
The Badgers are also looking to solidify their bowl footing and secure a Jan. 1 bowl berth while also looking to stay on the fringe of a BCS bid, waiting in case both Penn State and Iowa falter.
The Wildcats haven't been playing pretty football, but they have found a way to win seven games this season, including that huge road win over Iowa (who looked pretty good themselves this past week in Columbus even with their backup quarterback).
The NU defense has improved by leaps and bounds over what they looked like earlier in the year (particularly against Syracuse and Minnesota), and the offense has done its part by moving the ball rather efficiently (Northwestern had 444 yards of total offense against Illinois).
If the steadily improving Wildcat defense can contain the Wisconsin rushing attack and the offense can move the ball as well as we've seen in some flashes (particularly the third quarter last week, where NU had 169 yards of total offense), then the 'Cats could hang around in this one, only needing a mistake or two from Wisconsin to steal a win.
What to Look For: Northwestern Offense against Wisconsin Defense
NU QB Mike Kafka posted his fourth game of the season with over 300 yards passing, despite still being limited on the ground with his nagging hamstring injury. Despite not being able to use designed quarterback runs or scramble when the field is open, he led the NU offense to an efficient day against Illinois.
NU would have likely put the game away much earlier if Stefan Demos had hit at least one or two of the field goals that he missed.
The ground game even helped out NU's cause, with Arby Fields and Scott Concannon combining for 87 yards on the ground while both posted some significant runs. The offensive line looked much improved from earlier in the year as they opened holes while also giving Kafka time to throw (they allowed just one sack on the day).
The receivers, a relatively unsung group, continue to be reliable options, with seven guys possessing over 100 receiving yards on the season and eight players having caught 10 or more balls this year. In total, 16 different players have caught a pass this year, meaning that NU's opponents cannot afford to leave any eligible receiver open.
Overall, the NU offense ranks 31st nationally in passing yards (257.2 yards per game), and with the offensive line opening holes and Kafka's hamstring returning to full strength, they have a shot at giving the Badgers a headache.
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin provides a formidable threat on defense. They rank 19th nationally in total defense and are 16th in the country in tackles for loss, averaging 7.3 per game.
They're also 33rd nationally in sacks, averaging 2.5 per game, and have two monsters at defensive end: J.J. Watt (who has 10.5 TFLs on the year), and O'Brien Schofield (who has an insane 19.5 TFLs and 8.0 sacks this season, and is also third on the team with 51 tackles).
Needless to say, the Wildcats' offensive line has a tough job in store on Saturday.
The linebacking corps is led by senior Jaevery McFadden, who leads the Badgers with 62 tackles, but Culmer St. Jean isn't far behind with 55 stops this year.
If there is one weak point to the Badgers' defense, it is the secondary and pass defense in general, as Wisconsin ranks 48th nationally, giving up almost 208 yards per game through the air. They have also allowed 16 passing TDs to just 7 rushing on the year. But NU shouldn't get too comfortable, as the Badgers are tied for 19th nationally in interceptions with 13 this season.
What to Look For: Northwestern Defense against Wisconsin Offense
For the Wisconsin offense, their game plan starts and ends with the power rushing game. Starting RB John Clay is the leading rusher in the Big Ten with 1,124 yards on the season and has 12 touchdown runs on the year to boot. Overall, the Badgers average 4.6 yards per rushing attempt and feature the nation's 16th ranked ground game.
The Badgers also have depth at RB, with Montee Ball and Zach Brown combining for 487 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season. But their offense doesn't stop there, as Chicago area native Scott Tolzien has posted solid numbers at quarterback and is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week.
On the year, Tolzien has completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 1,957 yards and 14 touchdowns while tossing only 9 interceptions. Last week, he threw for 240 yards and four touchdowns on just 24 pass attempts.
The Badgers' receiving corps is led by WR Nick Toon, who leads the Badgers in receptions and receiving yards. TE Garrett Graham leads UW in receiving TDs with five and provides a big target to hit coming off of the line.
The Wildcat defense will have its hands full up front, without a doubt. And the secondary must play disciplined football or else risk being burned deep.
Despite a relatively poor start to the year, the NU defense has turned it around as of late and now ranks 40th nationally and fifth in the conference in rushing defense (yielding just 125.7 yards per game), and comes in at 44th nationally and fifth in the Big Ten in total defense as well.
Corey Wootton has been coming on strong as of late, tallying both a sack and another TFL against Illinois and now has a sack in three of the last four games.
The one part of the game that has helped the 'Cats the most is turnovers: NU ranks 14th nationally having taken the ball away 24 times this season. And NU doesn't allow long sustained drives that often, either, ranking 31st nationally with a 35 percent third down conversion defense.
Defensive tackles Adam Hahn and Corbin Bryant will have to create whatever pressure they can up front, while linebackers Nate Williams and Quentin Davie (tied for second and first on NU in tackles this season) will have to plug the holes as they attempt to contain the Wisconsin running game.
And, despite being banged up, the Northwestern secondary has done an admirable job, but will have one more challenge against UW. The Badgers will utilize play action early and often, and the secondary must avoid clamping down on the run at the expense of deep coverage. Sherrick McManis tallied his fourth interception of the year to seal last week's game, and will have to continue his solid play at corner to bolster NU's upset hopes.
It will be interesting to see if NU S Brendan Smith can return for his last game at Ryan Field, and expect Brad Phillips to tough out another game despite injuring his hip at Illinois last week (he did come back into the game after the injury).
What to Look for: Special Teams
Northwestern P/K Stefan Demos will be looking to recover from a forgettable performance against Illinois that included three missed field goal attempts and a shanked punt that went 12 yards. Hopefully the performance was an aberration, as he would be needed in a tight game, and has already hit two game-winning field goals this season.
The 'Cats' return game troubles have continued, as NU ranks 89th nationally in punt returns and 105th in kick returns. But, thankfully, the Badgers are worse than NU in both of those categories, ranking 105th and 107th, respectively. Don't expect much excitement in the return game on Saturday.
Wisconsin kicker Philip Welch has been reliable on the year, hitting 38-of-39 XPs and 13-of-19 field goals, including two kicks of 50 yards or longer.
Northwestern is now 5-0 on the year when winning the turnover battle (after having a +2 turnover margin against Illinois) and 2-4 when losing it.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, is 5-0 when winning the turnover battle, 2-2 when losing, and 1-0 when the turnover margin is zero.
For the season, Northwestern's turnover margin is +0.36 per game while Wisconsin's is +0.40 per game.
Second Quarter Scoring
Both teams have been very successful in the second quarter of games this year.
Wisconsin has outscored opponents by 83 points in the second (137-54), while NU has outscored its foes by 71 (126-55).
Third Down Conversions
These two teams are almost identical on both sides of the ball in third-down conversion rates.
Northwestern's offense is converting 48 percent, exactly the same rate as Wisconsin's offense.
On defense, the Wildcats are allowing a 35 percent rate, while the Badgers are allowing opponents to convert 36 percent of their third downs.
Northwestern is 7-2 in 11AM (CT) starts this year and is 0-2 when the game starts at another time. The game against Wisconsin is a 2:30PM kickoff.
Wisconsin will be looking to lock up a Jan. 1 bowl berth and stay in the hunt for a possible BCS at-large bid (if both Penn State and Iowa lose on Saturday). A win over Northwestern essentially guarantees them a spot in the Outback Bowl or better.
Northwestern, meanwhile, wants to put itself in the best position possible when Bowl Selection Sunday rolls around on Dec. 6, and the best way to do that is to win. Virtually every major media projection has the Wildcats headed to the Champs Sports Bowl, and an upset win over Wisconsin could make that a worst-case scenario for NU.
Other games this week for NU fans to keep an eye on are the Minnesota-Iowa game at 11 AM CT and the PSU-MSU tilt at the same time as the Northwestern game; in fact, those games may have more of an impact on NU's bowl positioning than the 'Cats' own game.
Wins by Iowa and PSU will essentially guarantee the Big Ten a BCS at-large berth while holding both MSU and Minnesota to 6-6 records, both of those facts helping Northwestern (who would be 7-5, even with a loss).
RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), LB Ben Johnson (hamstring, doubtful), S Brendan Smith (hand, doubtful), OL Desmond Taylor (shoulder, doubtful)
Others still have nagging injuries (Kafka: hamstring, Persa: hand, Phillips: various), but will continue to play. Smith's and Johnsons' status will likely be revealed later in the week after practices have taken place.
It's interesting to note that Northwestern has gotten relatively healthier as the season has progressed after seeing the depth chart swell early in the year, with many key contributors unavailable against Syracuse at the height of the storm.
OL Josh Oglesby (knee, questionable), LB Mike Taylor (knee, out for season).
The Badgers have had their share of injuries, including one to key LB Taylor against Iowa, but they have also found some relative healthiness at the end of the season.
Northwestern 17, Wisconsin 24
Expect Northwestern to keep this one close as the defense does all it can to slow down Wisconsin's ground game. Unfortunately, though, NU won't be able to keep them off the scoreboard completely, meaning the offense must put up some points to give the 'Cats a chance.
And against a stout Badger defense, the Wildcats will have a tough time moving the ball effectively, especially if Kafka is not at 100 percent and therefore doesn't present a running threat.
The key to the game for Northwestern is turnovers: both teams are undefeated (5-0) on the year when winning the turnover battle, and the 'Cats need to generate takeaways and then take advantage of them in order to pull off this upset.
Wisconsin is a very disciplined team that executes their game plan well, making them tough to beat. This should be an interesting and physical contest, though, as both teams conclude their Big Ten seasons.