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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Wisconsin Badgers Preview and Prediction

Alex Hornibrook

Alex Hornibrook

Both Wisconsin (3-0) and Northwestern (2-1) come into Saturday’s Big Ten opener fresh off a bye week and looking to hit the conference slate running against their fellow West Division rival.

Northwestern Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson

Prior to the bye, Wisconsin put together one of their most complete victories in years with a 40-6 bashing of BYU in Provo. The Badgers racked up close to 500 yards of total offense while limiting BYU to under 200 yards and just 20 minutes of total possession.

Meanwhile, Northwestern bounced back from a road loss at Duke to dominate Bowling Green 49-7, putting up close to 700 total yards of offense, including 370 passing yards from quarterback Clayton Thorson.

Yards likely won’t be as easy to come by Saturday as both teams look to get a leg up in the Big Ten West divisional race.

Northwestern at Wisconsin

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 30 at 12 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Wisconsin -14.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Different stages
Arguably the two best players on the field will be the running backs for each team with Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. On one end of the spectrum you have the senior in Jackson who has a chance to become the all-time rushing leading in program history on Saturday as he sits now 108 yards shy of the record. Jackson is coming off his best performance of the season two weeks ago against Bowling Green, rushing for 121 yards and three touchdowns. Then you have Taylor, just a freshman, who currently leads the Big Ten in rushing and currently sits fifth in the country overall. Both rushers will be featured prominently on Saturday.

2. On the road again

Northwestern’s first road game of the season in 2017 did not go particularly well as the Wildcats were trounced at Duke, losing 41-17. The game was an eye-opener to many of the Northwestern players who were seeing their first action in a hostile environment as the two-deep features a handful of first-year starters. The Wildcats were able to bounce back the following week with a convincing 49-7 home victory against Bowling Green, but now have to hit the road once again in one of the toughest home field advantages in the Big Ten at Camp Randall. How will the young Wildcats handle their first B1G road test?

3. No sophomore slump

Alex Hornibrook had an uneven first season as the Badgers’ starting quarterback, throwing for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. Just three games into his sophomore season and Hornibrook is now just one TD shy of tying that mark he had all of last season. Through three games, Hornibrook has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country, completing 70 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns to just one interception. Against BYU, Hornibrook had just ONE incomplete pass with four touchdowns. Pair that with the ground attack of Taylor and this has the potential to be one of the most dynamic offenses Wisconsin has had in years.

Final Analysis

Northwestern is 1-1 in their last two meetings against the Badgers. Two years ago when the Wildcats pulled off the 13-7 upset, Justin Jackson rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. Last year in a losing effort, Jackson had just 42 yards on 13 carries. If Northwestern is to pull the upset, Jackson will need to rival his 2015 performance, but that will be challenging against the No. 10 rush defense in the country.

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Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 17

— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.