After dominating the Michigan Wolverines (1-3) — a historic football powerhouse — the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers (2-0) are headed to Evanston next week to face No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats (4-0). With both teams boasting undefeated records, the winner of Saturday’s game should come out on top of the Big Ten West Division.
The last time the Badgers battled the Wildcats, they were facing a very different offense. In 2019 Northwestern scored just six touchdowns all year, their worst season record-wise (3-9) since 2006.
Two new additions to the NU offense this year have transformed the Wildcats into a team to be afraid of: Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian and senior quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
Bajakian previously served as the offensive coordinator at Central Michigan (2007-2009), Cincinnati (2010-2012), Tennessee (2013-2014) and Boston College (2019). Notoriously energetic, Bajakian has successfully taken on the challenge of rejuvenating the Wildcats’ offense.
Ramsey joined the Wildcats for his final year of eligibility this year after playing four years as an Indiana Hoosier. Last season, Ramsey started seven games with the Hoosiers. His leadership on the field has made a noticeable impact. Last week, Ramsey threw for 212 yards and three touchdowns against the Purdue Boilermakers.
The game will also serve as a showdown between two of the Big Ten’s most seasoned head coaches. NU Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald was named to the position in 2006, but his coaching career at Northwestern dates back to 2001, while Wisconsin Head Coach Paul Chryst joined the Badgers coaching staff in 2005.
Chryst has acknowledged the Wildcats’ recent offensive success.
"I think they're playing well right now … I think they're running really well,” said Chryst earlier this week. “Offensively they're playing really good football."
The Badgers have won six of their past 10 matchups against the Wildcats, but haven’t fared as well playing Northwestern on the road. Chryst admitted to his teams’ previous struggles to gain yards against Northwestern.
"You do whatever works. It has to fit against the opponent,” Chryst said. “There's a reason why we've struggled … That's the fun part of this game, it's a challenge."
It would be unfair not to mention the Badgers’ own offensive success this season, though. Despite key offensive players remaining inactive last week due to COVID-19, including running back Garrett Groshek, four players rushed for over 65 yards each against the Wolverines.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph designed creative plays that highlighted the offense’s flexibility, and standout quarterback Graham Mertz added 127 yards and two touchdowns through the air. The Mertz-Ramsey match up is anticipated to be an exciting one to watch.
Perhaps with another week of practice under their belts following their brief hiatus, the Badgers could perform even better offensively against the Wildcats than they did against the Wolverines. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will know which players will be coming off of the inactives list until mere hours before kickoff.
Regardless of how the rosters shake out, Northwestern is expected to be Wisconsin’s stiffest competition yet.