It's coming down to the wire in the Big Ten when the No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers host the Northwestern Wildcats this Saturday. Both teams will be eager for a win this weekend — albeit for different reasons.
Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) is locked in a four-way tie atop the Big Ten West with Iowa, Minnesota, and Purdue, and it has a chance to win its fifth crown since the division was realigned in 2014. Meanwhile, Northwestern (3-6, 1-5) cannot win a third division title in four years and needs to win all of its remaining games to become bowl eligible.
The Badgers have won five straight, while the Wildcats have lost three in a row. The rivalry between these teams has been back and forth over the last few seasons with a 4-4 split since they started playing annually in 2013.
Northwestern at No. 18 Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 13 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -24.5
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Over the last couple of weeks, the Wildcats have gone with Andrew Marty at quarterback. And while it adds to the revolving door of signal-callers in 2021 (Marty, Hunter Johnson, Ryan Hilinski, and Carl Richardson), Marty has been effective to some degree. Over his last two starts (Minnesota, Iowa) Marty has totaled 363 passing yards with three touchdown passes, and he's completing close to 60 percent of his passes. But he's also thrown three interceptions and taken four sacks during that stretch as well. Look for him to get the start in Madison this weekend.
NU has also been getting consistent performances from running back Evan Hull, who over the Cats' last four games has recorded 282 rushing yards, 143 receiving yards, and three combined touchdowns (two receiving, one rushing). Hull is sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (791), fourth in yards per rushing attempt (6.2), and ninth in rushing attempts (127). Among conference running backs, he's also fifth in receiving yards (205) and fourth in yards per reception (9.3). Look for Hull to get his fair share of touches against the Badgers.
But despite Hull and Marty's best efforts, NU ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total offense (342.8 ypg), eighth in both passing offense (191.2 ypg), and rushing offense (151.6 ypg), and 13th in scoring (18.2 ppg). They'll have the daunting task of moving the ball against a Wisconsin team that sits atop the conference in the four major categories, including giving up just 54.7 rushing yards per game (also No. 1 in the nation) and 15.4 points per game (fourth). The Badgers are led by linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal (combined for 98 tackles and 8.5 sacks).
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
For the second straight week, Northwestern's defense will be taking on a pro-style offense. Which is something that Wisconsin has executed well over the last two decades or so. Quarterback Graham Mertz is the anchor and leader of this offense, who's completing 56.3 percent of his passes for 1,289 yards and six touchdown passes on 6.8 yards per attempt (8 interceptions). Graham may be the anchor of this offense, but the running game is the focus.
Leading rusher Chez Mellusi (fifth in the Big Ten with 815 rushing yards) will miss the rest of the season because of a leg injury but freshman Braelon Allen has emerged with five straight 100-yard games. He's averaging 7.1 yards per carry, which is second in the conference and fifth in the nation among players with at least 90 rushing attempts. For the season, the Badgers are averaging 226.6 rushing yards per game, which is 13th in the FBS.
When Mertz does throw the ball, however, his favorite targets are wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, along with tight end Jake Ferguson (combined for 924 receiving yards and 4 TD catches). As a whole, the Wisconsin offense is averaging 378.1 yards per game. They'll be champing at the bit to line up against a Northwestern defense that ranks second to last in the Big Ten in total defense (413.9 ypg), dead last in run defense (224.6 ypg), and third-worst scoring defense (26.0 ppg). But they do, however, rank fourth against the pass (189.3 ypg) and have 17 sacks this year. They'll be looking to boost their pass rush against Mertz, who's already taken 10 sacks this season.
The Badgers have a 60-37-5 lead in this all-time series, but the Wildcats have won four of the last seven meetings. Northwestern, however, hasn't won in Madison since 2015. NU is 8-14 in conference games since 2019, and considering they have issues on both sides of the ball, Wisconsin sticks to their bread and butter (run game, defense) to get the win at home.
Prediction: Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 14
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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.