A slow start to the season for the Northwestern Wildcats (1-2 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) and reigning Big Ten West champions has them tied with Rutgers and Purdue with the worst record in the Big Ten. This Saturday, the Wildcats look to turn their season around against the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (3-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) at Camp Randall. The Badgers hope to get revenge for a loss last season in Evanston, which put Northwestern in position to beat Wisconsin for the division crown.
Wisconsin is coming into this match-up hot after a dominant 21-point win over the Michigan Wolverines, while Northwestern is entering Madison following a 31-10 beating from Michigan State at home.
Northwestern started the season as early favorites to repeat as division champs, but things haven’t worked out the way they would’ve liked so far offensively. Northwestern’s coach Pat Fitzgerald came into the season with a decision to make at quarterback, to start five-star sophomore transfer Hunter Johnson or experienced senior TJ Green.
Fitzgerald ultimately ended up choosing Johnson to start, however, he has had an underwhelming start to the year. In the first three games, he’s thrown for a total of 308 yards with four interceptions, one touchdown and a dreadful completion percentage of 48.5 percent.
Although Johnson started all three games at quarterback, he ended up getting benched in both of Northwestern’s losses. If Northwestern wants to put up a fight against Wisconsin, Fitzgerald is going to need to produce an effective offensive game plan to help Johnson open up the field, as the Badgers defense has only allowed 14 points all season.
One of the few bright spots in the Northwestern offense this season has been their freshman running back Drake Anderson, who’s run for 237 yards and scored two touchdowns so far while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Anderson came into this season as one of a few backup running backs for the Wildcats but has quickly taken over the lead back role. He has been able to run the ball successfully despite Northwestern losing three starting offensive linemen from a season ago.
Along with Anderson, Northwestern’s secondary has been playing exceptionally well this year. Defensive backs Travis Whillock and JR Pace have really stepped it up this season, combining for 38 tackles and two fumble recoveries through the first three games. The Northwestern secondary has managed to hold their last two opponents to only 348 passing yards. Badger quarterback, Jack Coan has been dominant this season, passing for 692 yards and five touchdowns, with two rushing touchdowns as well. Whillock and Pace will need big games to shut down the smoking Badgers offense commanded by Coan.
There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered for this young Wildcat team, and a lot of answers should be provided over the coming weeks as Northwestern faces Nebraska, No. 5 Ohio State, then No. 14 Iowa. Saturday’s game will be the Wildcats' toughest contest of the season, so they need to come ready to play if they hope to upset Jack Coan, Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin Badgers.