Football

Controlling sidelines, tempo key for both teams as Wisconsin faces off against Northwestern

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger and Cameron Lane-Flehinger

With both teams sitting on one conference loss entering the back half of the season, Wisconsin's matchup with Northwestern could be key to determining who makes it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game. Ryan Field has been a house of horrors for the Badgers in recent years. Here are the keys for each team as they look to escape with a win.

Wisconsin:

1. Hug That Sideline:

The sideline. That pesky land of white grass that has decided numerous plays, drives, games, seasons and championships. It is often feared like the plague when it comes to offensive strategies in favor of “keeping it in between the numbers.” However, the Badgers would do right to organize their game-plan outside of those large digits. The Northwestern Wildcats have shown a knack for being able to bunker down in the middle of the field, but this has been at the cost of their defense being weak around the sidelines. Many of their biggest cough-ups have come with runners breaking to the sideline until paydirt is hit. This bodes well for Wisconsin, who has had success this year bringing sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor off-tackle, as well as on outside runs for receivers Kendric Pryor and Aron Cruikshank on the jet sweep.

2. Disrupt the Machine

Despite its lack of flashiness and oppressive bore-factor, Northwestern’s offense favors the slow-and-steady approach as opposed to the fast, run-and-gun style favored by many modern college programs.

The Wildcats tend to march down the field in smaller chunks, and the majority of their scores have come from within 10 yards of the end zones. These have usually been on rushes from sophomore running back John Moten IV, whose strong and sturdy build has dispelled many would-be tacklers.

To succeed, the Badgers must disrupt Northwestern’s tempo early and often with well-timed blitzes to get Northwestern’s offense off-schedule and behind the sticks. A few three-and-outs to start the game will force an awkward mid-game shift in strategy for the opposing coaching staff and lead to the Badgers reaping the benefits of a one-dimensional Wildcat offense.

3. When it Comes, Make it Count:

Efficiency isn’t typically a word used in conjunction with turnovers, but Wisconsin must be “efficient” in the takeaways department if they hope to tame the Wildcats in Evanston. Northwestern’s senior quarterback Clayton Thorson is prone to playing with a gung-ho style, and the result is a lot of opportunities for defensive backs to get on the stat sheet. The seasoned vet has thrown seven interceptions in his team’s first seven games, along with a pair of fumbles. The odds are that he’ll toss up a few passes in the Badgers’ direction, any of which could change the complexion of the game.

Wisconsin showed what a few well-timed turnovers can do for a defense last weekend against Illinois, and more of the same will go a long way toward avoiding the demons of Ryan Field.

Northwestern:

1. Let it Fly:

Although holding onto the ball for longer than it took to build Rome sometimes leads to positive results, Northwestern should do anything but. Quarterback Clayton Thorson has a nasty habit of extending the his time in the pocket, and it has resulted in multiple sacks and blindside hits that kill drives. Thorson would be well-advised to let it fly quickly before the play unravels. Wisconsin linebackers T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly will make the senior signal-caller taste the turf if he doesn’t get the ball to his receivers in a timely fashion. When he stays upright, Thorson has shown the ability to march down the field on long, calculated and methodical drives for scores. Still, he must remember that although the drives to the end zone can burn time, he cannot.

2. Play It Safe(ty):

Northwestern’s starting safeties, freshman Jared McGee and junior JR Pace, must be ready to meet Wisconsin’s running backs at the line of scrimmage in order to minimize damage. These two defenders have been crucial to the Wildcats’ rebound from an 0-3 start. The free safety Pace has nearly shut down the middle of the field and forced opposing teams to the sidelines — although they’ve found plenty of success there — and strong safety McGee has contained multiple runs that have broken past edge rushers’ overextended grasps. Pace and McGee will be the key agents of a Northwestern win if they are able to shut down the pass and run attacks, respectively. If they have success early and get some support from the offense, it will force the Badger offense to rely more on its spotty passing game.

3. Jump Around:

Northwestern’s football players must channel their inner basketball ability and win any 50-50 jump balls during the game. This season, Wisconsin defenders and receivers have frequently failed to attack the football at its high point and come down with those jump balls. This has been especially so on Alex Hornibrook interceptions that have floated down the field and opposing quarterback’s deep rainbows. Although most passes are thrown on a line, it will certainly help Northwestern if they're able to muscle their way to victory on those toss-up balls. If Northwestern can capitalize on these rare-yet-important plays like a power forward cleaning up the glass, it will swing the game’s momentum toward the Wildcats in their home stadium.

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