In a matchup with significant implications on the Big Ten West Division race, No. 10 Wisconsin travels to No. 19 Northwestern on Saturday in a battle of two undefeated teams.
The game has earned the title of a de facto Big Ten championship semifinal, with the Wildcats (4-0) and Badgers (2-0) tied for first place in the division and the winner controlling their own destiny to play next month for the conference title at Indianapolis.
“Every game against them is a challenge,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “This year will be no different.”
After it canceled its previous two games against Nebraska and Purdue due to a coronavirus outbreak on the team, Wisconsin returned to action Saturday night by handing Michigan its worst home loss since 1935.
The Badgers outgained the Wolverines by 249 yards, including 6.7 yards per carry for a whopping 341 rushing yards. Nine different Wisconsin players recorded a carry, with Jalen Berger leading the way with 87 yards and Nakia Watson finding the end zone twice.
Quarterback Graham Mertz, who broke out in the season opener against Illinois with five touchdowns while completing 20 of 21 passes, had a much quieter second game as the rushing attack ran all over the Michigan defense.
Despite a long break in between, Wisconsin’s first two games have been impressive. The two 38-point margins of victory over Illinois and Michigan mark the first time the Badgers have won by at least 38 points in consecutive conference games since 1912.
“They play and have always played an unselfish, physical brand of football,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I think they are as complete of a team as I have seen on tape.”
The Wildcats enter with their first 4-0 start in Big Ten play since 1996 after defeating Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., 27-20 on Saturday.
Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey had his best game for the Wildcats, throwing for three touchdowns and 212 yards, although the rushing attack struggled with only 80 yards on 40 carries.
But the Wildcats defense had another big-time performance. In addition to holding Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell to under 300 passing yards, Northwestern allowed the Boilermakers only two net rushing yards in the game.
In its four games, Northwestern has allowed opposing offenses only 301.8 yards per game, 11th best in the country. Wisconsin slots in at No. 1 with 218.5 yards allowed per game, although it has played half as many games.
The Badgers defense has only allowed 18 points through the first two games.
Since 2015, Wisconsin has 36 conference wins and Northwestern has 31.
The Wildcats have been especially successful against the Badgers at home, winning five of the past six matchups at Ryan Field. However, since Chryst has taken over in Madison, the Badgers hold a 3-2 advantage over Northwestern.
“You are going to have to earn it, and I think that shows in our past games with them,” Mertz said. “In the end, it’s going to be a gritty game. Whoever wants to play harder, play smarter and play more physical will win the game.”
–Field Level Media