First place in the Big Ten West is up for grabs in this game
It's a matchup of the only unbeaten teams in the Big Ten West on Saturday when the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats host the 10th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. These teams have won the division in each of the last two seasons, and control of the West will be on the line when they meet for the 102nd time.
The Wildcats are still perfect after another full team effort pulled them past Purdue last weekend, their fifth straight win in West Lafayette. As a result, the Wildcats are 4-0 to begin conference play for the first time since 1996 (they won a share of the Big Ten title that year).
The Badgers (2-0) dominated Michigan last Saturday night in Ann Arbor, and they certainly didn't look like a team that had its previous two games canceled. Wisconsin didn't miss a beat against the Wolverines and will look to give that same effort against NU.
A win for Northwestern would give the program its first 5-0 start since 2015 and make it one step closer to a second division title in three seasons. Meanwhile, a win for UW will put the Badgers in the divisional driver's seat to a record seventh appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game.
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 19 Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -7.5
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
The Badgers have already had two games canceled this season, but when they have played, they've made it count: They lead the Big Ten in scoring both offense (47.0 ppg) and rushing offense (261.5 ypg). They only trail Ohio State in terms of total offense (449.0 ypg), and the Badgers can still dominate the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Graham Mertz is second in the conference in both completion rate (74.4 percent) and passer rating (201.4). His accuracy was very evident in the season opener against Illinois in which he completed his first 17 passes in a row. He makes the Badgers' passing attack more efficient, which gives them more balance than what they're usually known for.
Also unlike in past seasons, the Badgers have taken more of a by-committee approach with their running backs. Nakia Watson (two rushing TDs), Jalen Berger (one TD), John Chenal (one TD), and Garrett Groshek (5.4 ypc) have combined for 357 rushing yards through two games. Running the ball is still at the core of this Wisconsin team, but now their passing offense is a little more dangerous. However, this won't be a typical Northwestern team that the Badgers will be lining up against.
In last year's meeting, Wisconsin totaled 243 total yards against Northwestern. It'll be a little harder for the Badgers to do that this year, as NU has seen significant improvement on this side of the ball. The Wildcats are the Big Ten's second-best defensive unit in total defense (301.8 ypg), rushing defense (91.8 ypg), and scoring defense (14.0 ppg). Not to mention the fact that they've only allowed one individual 100-yard rusher this year (Nebraska's Adrian Martinez). This will be Wisconsin's toughest test of the season.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
For as much as the Wildcat defense has improved, their offense has made an even bigger improvement. Mike Bajakian's pro-style/spread hybrid scheme has made this Northwestern offense faster, more efficient, and more successful. The Wildcats rank third in the Big Ten in total offense (354.8 ypg) and sixth in scoring offense (28.0 ppg).
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey is the anchor of this offense, and the Indiana transfer has been as good as — if not better than — advertised, as he ranks in the Big Ten's top five in pass completions (73), completion percentage (65.8), and passer rating (131.1). Altogether Ramsey has thrown for 723 yards, he's run for an additional 122, and he's responsible for seven total touchdowns.
Ramsey has spread the wealth as he's completed passes to 12 different receivers this season. Supporting Ramsey on the ground is the backfield pair of Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser. Collectively, they've posted 380 rushing yards and three touchdown runs on 104 carries. All three men have helped make Northwestern the conference's seventh-ranked rushing attack (174.0 ypg). The Wildcats bring balance and consistency on offense, which is something that they haven't had in many years.
NU's offense will be tested early and often by the Badgers' imposing defense, which paces the conference in scoring defense (9.0 ppg), total defense (218.5 ypg), passing defense (129.5 ypg), and rushing defense (89.0 ypg). Points will be at quite the premium at Ryan Field on Saturday.
Wisconsin leads the all-time series 60-36-5. But both teams have evenly split the last six games (3-3), while Northwestern has won two of the last three at Ryan Field (2018, '14) by a combined score of 58-52. This game comes down to the wire, but the Badgers' defense and ground game give them a close victory.
Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Northwestern 24
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
— Gabe Salgado 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's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.