No. 17 Wisconsin heads to Evanston, Ill., to take on Northwestern Saturday in the Badgers’ first Big Ten contest and first true road game of the season.
Wisconsin is coming off an uninspiring 27-10 victory over South Florida last weekend. The Badgers found themselves in an ugly 3-3 tie at halftime before a fantastic second half performance from Melvin Gordon and a key forced fumble from freshman safety Lubern Figaro gave them some breathing room.
That game was a microcosm of Wisconsin’s season so far, a season in which the Badgers have flashed brilliance but been unable to play a strong game across all four quarters.
There was the second half collapse against LSU in the season opener and two terrible first halves against Western Illinois and South Florida. Even in a blowout victory versus Bowling Green, the Badgers began slowly before blowing the game open in the second quarter.
However, such inconsistency means Wisconsin is on par with the rest of the Big Ten, a downtrodden conference full of pitiful offenses and maddening upset losses.
Northwestern fits right into this conference-wide pattern of mediocrity. The Wildcats had one of the worst starts in college football this season after losing to California and Northern Illinois at home in their first two games. For context, California went 1-11 last season and Northern Illinois doesn’t have Jordan Lynch anymore.
Northwestern then defeated Western Illinois in a lackluster game to get back on track, but nobody expected the Wildcats to go on the road last week and trounce Penn State, 29-6. Such a dominating win over the previously unbeaten Nittany Lions may prove to be a turning point for Northwestern.
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen stressed that even with Northwestern’s inconsistency, the Wildcats cannot be taken lightly.
“If [the Penn State game] doesn’t catch your eye and understand that this is a very, very good football team, then you don’t understand football very well,” Andersen said in a press conference Monday. “Especially with what I’ve only learned in one year in the Big Ten: you had better have yourself ready every single week because it’s going to be competitive and it’s going to be physical and your opponent is very well coached.”
Despite that invigorating win last week, the Wildcats are not without issues. They rank in the lower half of college football in all major offensive categories, and nobody on the roster is averaging more than 60 rushing or receiving yards per game. Perhaps most telling is the fact they’re averaging just 4.6 yards per play, tied for 116th in the nation.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian is Northwestern’s offensive leader, but he’s struggled so far, completing less than 60 percent of his passes and throwing twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two). Andersen believes Siemian is better than the numbers indicate.
“His feeling and his command, understanding of the offense, has grown in a very positive way for … Northwestern and for their offense unit,” Andersen said. “You really saw it come true in this last game. He does a tremendous job of looking off. His pre-snap awareness in his own mind must be pretty clean and pretty clear.”
Northwestern’s defense is statistically average in most categories besides scoring, where the Wildcats rank 19th nationally. Their front seven is the strength of the unit, with 12 sacks and 24 tackles for loss.
“[The defense] takes the highlighted players that they have and they make sure they’re putting them in the opportune spots to change the game or flip the game upside down,” Andersen said. “And the communication I think they had last [week] to cause issues with Penn State’s offense was very impressive.”
The Badgers have proven they can run the football, but the passing attack remains a question mark after four games. Redshirt junior Tanner McEvoy has completed 59 percent of his passes while throwing four picks and five touchdowns. It remains to be seen which of McEvoy’s stat lines will be indicative of his performance going forward.
Wisconsin has continuously had slow starts to begin its games. The Badgers have scored just 29 of their 156 points and have three of their seven turnovers in the first quarter this season.
There’s no easy solution for this, but with the Badger defense allowing just 20 first quarter points all year, it’s obvious the Wisconsin offense must establish the tempo early and sustain it all game.
As conference play heats up, the slow starts to games need to be shored up if Wisconsin is to make the Big Ten championship. The Badgers can take a step in the right direction this Saturday when action kicks off at 2:30 p.m.