MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin vows it won’t overlook Northwestern as the 20th-ranked Badgers attempt to earn their sixth straight win and move a step closer to a Big Ten championship game berth.
The wounds from their 17-7 loss at Northwestern last season are still too fresh.
“I don’t think I can brush it under the rug, you know what I mean?” Wisconsin outside linebacker Nick Herbig said. “I still have a bitter taste in my mouth about it.”
Wisconsin was ranked 10th last year before losing to then-No. 19 Northwestern. That result sparked Northwestern to a Big Ten West Division title while starting a three-game skid for Wisconsin.
The situation facing both teams is a bit different heading into Saturday’s rematch (11 a.m. ESPN2, 720-AM).
Northwestern (3-6, 1-4 Big Ten) hasn’t recaptured its 2020 magic as the Wildcats can’t stop the run and can’t settle on a starting quarterback. Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2) has bounced back from a slow start and is in a four-way tie for the West Division lead, though the Badgers must play the rest of the season without leading rusher Chez Mellusi after he injured his left knee last week.
“The way that the Badgers are playing right now, it’s going to be a huge challenge,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Wisconsin enters Saturday’s game as a 24 ½-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Even so, the Badgers aren’t taking anything for granted because they understand the history of this series.
Northwestern has won eight of its last 15 meetings with Wisconsin, though the Badgers have won six of the last seven matchups at Camp Randall Stadium.
“Both programs are really well coached,” Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “Both want to play physical football. It’s kind of like a little bit of a rivalry. It might not be a trophy game, but it’s a rivalry game with it being a Big Ten West game, a lot of implications usually on the line.”
Wisconsin will be playing its first game since losing Mellusi, who ranked fifth in the Big Ten in yards rushing (815) and second in carries (173).
The Badgers still have one of the nation’s more physical running backs in 6-foot-2, 238-pound freshman Braelon Allen, who has rushed for over 100 yards in each of Wisconsin’s last five games. But the loss of Mellusi hampers the Badgers’ depth at a position where they already had lost multiple players to transfers and dismissals.
Whether it’s because of the quarterback play or issues elsewhere, Northwestern continues to struggle on offense. The Wildcats rank 106th in the nation in yards per game and have used three starters behind center, with Andrew Marty getting the call in a 17-12 loss to Iowa last week after Hunter Johnson and Ryan Hilinski struggled.
“We’ve got three more weeks to go in the season,” Fitzgerald said. “Before I make any statements on what we need to do and where we need to go, I’m gonna let the final three chapters — and hopefully one more — be written. I’ll hold off until then.”
Marty, who replaced Hilinski during a blowout loss to Minnesota the previous week, completed 25 of 44 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown. The senior was also intercepted three times in his second career start.
RUN DEFENSE DIFFERENCE
Wisconsin is allowing just 54.7 yards rushing per game and 1.9 yards per carry to lead the nation in both categories. Wisconsin also ranks first in total defense.
No Football Bowl Subdivision team has finished a season having allowed fewer than 55 yards rushing per game or 2 yards per carry since TCU’s 2008 squad accomplished both feats.
By contrast, Northwestern is giving up 224.9 yards rushing per game to rank 124th out of 130 FBS teams. The Wildcats give up 5.4 yards for carry, which is 121st nationally.
TAKING THEM DOWN
Linebacker Chris Bergin has been a bright spot for Northwestern. A team captain and a former walk-on, the senior leads the nation in both total tackles (110) and solo stops (69). Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal is averaging 1.71 tackles for loss per game to rank third among all FBS players.
During its first six games of the season, Wisconsin committed 15 turnovers and produced just four takeaways. Twelver of those turnovers came during the Badgers’ 1-3 start. Over their last three games, the Badgers have 12 takeaways and just three turnovers.