Preview: (10) Wisconsin at (19) Northwestern

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers (2-0) at the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats (4-0)

The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.

The TV coverage: ABC with Sean McDonough and Todd Blackledge in the booth, and Todd McShay and Molly McGrath on the sideline.

The last time: Running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 119 yards and one touchdown in a 24-15 win for Wisconsin.

The series: Wisconsin leads 60-36-5

The line: Wisconsin -7.5

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

LB Mike Maskalunas (lower body)
DE Matt Henningsen (left arm)
WR Kendric Pryor (upper body)

OUT

QB Jack Coan (foot)

THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH

1) Getting guys back

Wisconsin was missing 10 players for undisclosed reasons last week, though many were thought to be COVID-19 related. But coach Paul Chryst said this week that they have a group of guys that could return against Northwestern. Among those on that list include running back Garrett Groshek, guard Josh Seltzner, defensive end Garrett Rand and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose.

2) Run the ball

Since Chryst returned to Wisconsin as head coach in 2015, the Badgers have run for at least 200 yards on every Big Ten team but one. That team? Yep, you guessed it. It’s Northwestern. The Wildcats have done a better job stopping the run game than anyone else, limiting the Badgers to just 3.1 yards per carry over five games.

After struggling to get much going against Illinois in Week 1, the Badgers tore Michigan up last week to the tune of 341 yards rushing and five touchdowns. They don’t need a similar effort against Northwestern, but being more productive than in recent matchups with the Wildcats could go a long way to helping their cause.

3) More Jalen Berger?

With Groshek and Isaac Guerendo out last week, it left Nakia Watson and Jalen Berger to carry the load. And while Watson was productive, the excitement over Berger’s debut was the story. The true freshman carried 15 times for a team-high 87 yards and scored a touchdown. He added two catches for 13 yards out of the backfield.

But with Groshek and Guerendo expected back soon, will Berger, who didn’t sniff the field against Illinois, keep seeing the ball?

“I thought Jalen did some really good stuff,” Chryst said of Berger’s effort against Michigan. “For his first action, I thought he was poised. I thought he saw things well and it was fun to get him going. I think he’s obviously earned the right to continue to get more reps.”

4) Game 3 for Graham Mertz

Graham Mertz wasn’t nearly as good against Michigan as he was against Illinois, but the redshirt freshman didn’t play poorly against the Wolverines. He made a number of big-time throws, including a touchdown down the seam to tight end Jake Ferguson. He did have at least three of his 22 attempts dropped, but also admitted this week that he missed a couple open receivers down the field.

But the Badgers may need something Saturday that is closer to his performance against the Illini when he completed a school-record 21 of 22 passes and threw five touchdowns. If Wisconsin struggles to run the ball, which as evidenced above is very good possibility, the pressure will be on Mertz to step up and win the game through the air.

He’s shown he’s capable of doing it against a suspect defense like Illinois. Can he do it against a Northwestern defense that has picked off the second-most passes in the Big Ten and allowed the second-fewest touchdowns through the air?

5) Dominant defense

It’s a very small sample size, but no one is playing better defense in the country than Wisconsin. The Badgers lead the country in total defense (218.5 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (9.0 points per game). They have a top 10 unit in both pass and rush defense, and opposing quarterbacks are completing a nation-worst 43.8% of their passes.

Now comes Northwestern, which has been far from explosive, averaging 28.0 points per game and sitting 95th in the country in total offense with 354.8 yards per game.

Still, those are much better figures than a year ago when a horrendous offense, largely due to lackluster quarterback play, dragged the Wildcats down to a last-place finish in the Big Ten West. Coach Pat Fitzgerald knew a change was needed, so he brought in a new offensive coordinator and grabbed Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey from the transfer portal.

Ramsey has been solid, throwing six touchdowns and four interceptions, while also running for 122 yards and a touchdown. The run game is powered by Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson, though neither scares you as a defense. And, receiver-wise, none that have more than three catches are averaging more than 10.8 yards per catch.

The challenge for Wisconsin’s defense might be greater than a season ago, but it appears the unit has a lot going in its favor and a good chance of shutting the Wildcats down once again.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

Wisconsin has won five straight matchups against Northwestern when ranked inside the top 10 of the country, but has just one win (2016) at Ryan Field this century.

TE Jake Ferguson is ranked No. 7 in the country in scoring per game (12.0) after grabbing four touchdowns in the first two games of the year. The four scores match his career-high for a season.

Since Jim Leonhard joined the coaching staff in 2016 — one year as the secondary coach and now four seasons as defensive coordinator — the Badgers rank in the top 5 in the country in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and third-down defense.

ZONE PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 28, Northwestern 14
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 38, Northwestern 17
Nelson Raisbeck’s prediction: Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 10

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