Consistent ground attack, generating pass rush key for UW in Big Ten opener

Running backs Bradrick Shaw and Jonathan Taylor will look to pound the rock against Inidana this weekend.

Image By: Brandon Moe

Northwestern and No. 9 Wisconsin meet in Camp Randall for the 99th time on Saturday. Here are three keys to victory for both squads ahead of this weekends’ matchup.

Northwestern

#1 Win in the Trenches

If the Wildcats want to have any chance to win this ball game, they’re gonna have to start by winning in the trenches. This is easier said than done however, as Wisconsin’s rushing attack ranks eighth nationally. The Badgers’ offensive line paves the way for their running backs, giving them the space to average an impressive 5.6 yards per carry. Northwestern will also have to overcome returning only one key starter on the defensive line, senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster. Lancaster and fellow junior defensive tackle Jordan Thompson will be looked to to set the tone early in the game and eat up blockers to allow NU’s linebackers to get home. If they don’t, it could be a long day for the Wildcat linebacking corps as they watch Wisconsin’s running backs run free.

#2 Start Strong

This could be a key to victory for any team on any given day, but for Northwestern this rings especially true. With an opponent like Wisconsin, the Wildcats need to put points on the board early and often to keep the Badgers at bay. With a big lead, the Badgers would have no choice but to turn to redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Although Hornibrook has looked solid so far this year, he is far from a proven passer. Through 15 career games,, Hornibrook has only thrown 251 passes for a meager 1,963 yards, amounting to 7.8 yards per attempt. Let’s also not forget that Hornibrook was benched on multiple occasions last season due to ineffectiveness as a passer. He has shown bright spots at times and can thrive when Wisconsin is able to set up a run game, but a big deficit wouldn’t allow for that to happen. Hornibrook would be forced to throw, and would likely be uncomfortable doing so. If Northwestern can control the tempo and make the Badgers play fast, they may have a chance in this game.

#3 Find Thoson's Rhythm

Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson is the unquestioned leader of this Northwestern football team. He leads and the team follows. If Thorson can get into a groove and start to play really well, his team should follow suit. This shouldn’t be too difficult for Thorson, a third--year starter. He currently ranks 25th nationally in passing yardage and boasts a quarterback rating of 144.3. Wisconsin’s pass defense, however, will make things a little difficult for Thorson, as the Badgers rank 29th in passing yards allowed. They have also intercepted five passes and gotten to the opposing quarterback eight times so far this year. Should Thorson overcome this Badger defense and get into a rhythm, look for Northwestern to potentially pull off a big time upset over the Badgers.

Wisconsin

#1 Run, Run, and Run some more

I know this is old news, but the Badgers are REALLY good at running the football. Like, eighth in the nation good. So it’s only natural that Wisconsin should pound the rock to grind out another win. The Badgers have always prided themselves on their running game which is built by having an incredible offensive line and talented running backs. This year it’s more of the same, with a top--flight offensive line led by juniors Beau Benzschawel and Michael Dieter and a three-headed monster running the ball with freshmen Jonathan Taylor, sophomore Bradrick Shaw, and junior Chris James. Look for these backs to run wild all day against Northwestern’s 83rd ranked rushing defense, and further solidify Wisconsin’s standing as one of the country’s best rushing attacks.

#2 Bring the Heat

Generating a consistent pass rush will be key to a Badgers victory on Saturday. Clayton Thorson is one of the country’s top passers and will carve up Wisconsin’s secondary if he isn’t pressured. That’s why the Badgers will be looking for huge games from senior outside linebackers Garrett Dooley and Leon Jacobs. They will look to get pressure early on a Wildcat offensive line that has given up 2.33 sacks per game so far this season.

Wisconsin has been pretty solid rushing the passer so far this year,, amassing eight sacks through its first three contests. This may not seem too high, but consider that the Badgers have played two teams that rely heavily on running the ball, and one that consistently produced three-and-outs throughout the game.

Playing a pass-heavy offense like Northwestern will give the Badger edge rushers like RS junior Andrew Van Ginkel a host of sack opportunities to take advantage of.

#3 Dictate the Tempo

If the Badgers indeed stick to their guns and run the ball, this key will happen automatically. Wisconsin needs to dominate in time of possession to put this game away. Over the last three seasons, Wisconsin has averaged about 33 minutes of possession per game, consistently holding the ball away from its opponents. Over that time period, the Badgers hold a 30-4 record when leading in time of possession, with all four losses coming at the hands of teams ranked in the top ten. When holding the ball for 35 minutes or more, the Badgers’ record skyrockets to 18-1, a 94 percent win rate. Wisconsin is one of the country’s premier teams when it comes to clock management. If UW can win in time of possession, you can pretty much write this off as a victory for the Badgers.

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