You’d be hard-pressed to find an objective college football fan who watched the Buckeyes’ these past two weeks actually claim that Wisconsin was more impressive than NU in their respective efforts to take down the B1G’s top-rated team. Then again, when was the last time you found an objective college football fan?
Northwestern is ranked #18/#19 and captured quite a few fringe fans this past weekend as their primetime near-upset performance grabbed a 4.4 rating, which equates to more than 7 million viewers, according to an ESPN press release yesterday. It was the highest non-NFL game TV rating of the weekend. So, with so many people still buzzing about NU, this week matters that much more. A 3:30 pm et ABC telecast and a 10.5 underdog point spread await the Wildcats who are eager to prove they are a contender for a re-match with Ohio State in Indy. Forgive Wisconsin fans for having confidence in this one.
The Badgers boast a ridiculous 90% winning percentage in Camp Randall since 2004, posting a 58-6 record during that span. If you’re not in to that kind of history, then the present team roster stats should more than compel you to take notice of the best unranked team in America. If you want just one tidbit, consider the fact Wisconsin’s third string RB is currently ranked 8th in the B1G in rushing.If you’ve watched any Wisconsin games this week then you know the basic drill. The Badgers OL has been (yawn) producing gaping holes in every game not named Ohio State enabling the 1-2-3 punch of RBs Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement to rack up video game-like rushing stats. QB Joel Stave has been surprisingly steady overall and downright lethal in the red zone. And, then there is the Eric Decker reincarnated WR Jared Abbrederis, whose 200+ receiving yard domination of Ohio State was even more impressive considering everyone knew he was the first, second and third option (just like former Gopher, Decker was).
The Badgers sport the uber-likable LB Chris Borland, who would win every conceivable collegiate defensive award if Pat Fitzgerald and ABC commentator Chris Spielman were the judge and jury. Seriously, his performance against Ohio State was the most dominant I’ve seen since Andy Katzenmoyer roamed the middle of the Buckeyes defense. The Badgers aren’t perfect, though. If you watched the Arizona State game you saw the Sun Devils torch Wisconsin on the back shoulder pass. It was a clinic. The Badgers secondary has been average at best. Yet, despite the weak link unit that favors Northwestern’s strength, you may not know that Wisconsin is currently ranked 10th in the FBS in scoring defense at 14.6 ppg and an eye-popping 6th nationally in total defense yielding just 272.6 ypg. Those numbers are a bit slighted by a pair of shutouts against lighweights UMASS and Tennessee Tech.
Make no bones about it, this one will come down to us stopping the Badgers seemingly unstoppable ground game. With DT Sean McEvilly on crutches, a dinged up Jack Konopka and bruised egos from Ohio State’s manhandling of our D-line after the Mack truck known as Carlos Hyde ran it for 168 yards down our throats, you can bet the Badger backs are salivating. It was the first 100+ yard rushing effort by an NU opponent since last year’s Iowa game. Wisconsin doesn’t do 100-yard rushing games. They like to do it in 300-yard chunks. Consider these silly stats:
- Melvin Gordon is STILL averaging 10.3 ypc after his sub-100-yard game at the Shoe. He led the FBS in ’12 with a 10.0 ypc average and is currently averaging .1 ypc less than the best (9.5 ypc) career average mark in the past 15 years. Oh yeah, he leads the B1G in rushing with 139 ypg.
- Gordon, in his last 7 games has had nine runs of 30+ yards, five of 50+ and three 60+. Yes, folks, it is pretty simple. Just like the NU secondary did last week against Braxton Miller, the key is to limit explosion plays in this one.
- Did we mention he’s the back-up? James White, the senior “starter”, is the current career TD leader with 37, including 36 on the ground. White is the steak and Gordon is the sizzle, meanwhile Corey Clement is the star in waiting. Yes folks, Wisconsin is THAT good on the ground. They regularly have two backs over 100+ yards in the same game and the Badgers average 518 ypg of total offense. THEY AVERAGE 300.6 YPG ON THE GROUND!
- Did we mention they lead the country in fewest fumbles? Not only this year, but since 2010, a span that has them surrendering way less than their closest competitor (Navy) on a fumble per attempt ratio. Wisconsin fumbles once every 135 attempts during the past four seasons.
- While the Badgers RBs get all the love, the Badgers’ “D” gives up just 99 rushing yards per game, 12th best in the FBS.
You get the point. The offense is explosive and scary good at running back. Then, there is Jared Abbrederis, a one-man wrecking crew. Wisconsin is one of just four FBS programs with 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 passing yards through five games. I won’t scare you by sharing the percentage of the passing yards that go to Wisconsin’s elite WR.
The bigger picture context is that Wisconsin is perceived to be an elite program. Obviously their 8-4 regular season record last year was a downer for Badgers fans, but they back-doored their way in to their third straight Rose Bowl. They’ve been to five Rose Bowls since the start of the BCS. They’ve got the 11th best record in the FBS during that time span and only Ohio State has sent more first round picks to the NFL this century (12).
Simply put, they’ve built a monster of a program. Winning at Wisconsin turns heads. Across the country. Sure, the Badgers may be unranked, but their two losses are a respectable loss at Ohio State and the scandalous finish at Arizona State, which seemed destined to be a win.
While we may be ranked higher than the Badgers, a win on Saturday would create some head turns, of the good variety, across the country. I’m quietly confident this 2013 edition of the Wildcats can do just that. Venric Mark’s spark, senior leadership and a true hunger that seems palatable are elements of a team and a program that seem on the verge of breaking through. It’s a huge one, as NU can’t afford to go 0-2 in the B1G and hope to really make it to Indy. They’d have to 6-0 the rest of the way to even have a shot. Possible, but no room for error. I believe this is the toughest team we’ll face the rest of the way. The 2012 ‘Cats were resilient, never losing back-to-back games. If the carryover from 2012 is in effect and this team aspires to really take the program to the next level, a win at Wisconsin – a place so few teams escape with a win – would go a long way to legitimizing the ‘Cats.