A Northwestern win last Saturday was never out of the question. The Wildcats looked disorganized and uninspired on both sides of the ball during nonconference play, but Penn State’s legitimacy was still in question, and the start of the Big Ten schedule brought a certain level of catharsis. Nick Medline correctly predicted the surprise win as Pat Fitzgerald insisted that his team could play with anyone in the league.
But a 29-6 rout was basically out of the question, especially in Happy Valley. Northwestern’s defense played an absolutely flawless game, while its offensive line held up for the first time all year. Trevor Siemian wasn’t horrible. A win this unseating and lopsided seems like an outlier, but it begs an important question: Are the trends that emerged from the PSU win sustainable? In the team’s biggest game since last year’s trip to Wisconsin, a few intriguing matchups stand out.
Vitale was, in his terms, “not up to par” during Northwestern’s first three games. He proceeded to go off on the Nittany Lions for 113 receiving yards on seven catches. Rather than lulling around the flat or streaking down field, as he did in previous games, Vitale was used as a mid-level option between the seams, and looked excellent on play action.
Can his production be matched again this weekend? LSU tight end Travis Dickson was held to one catch for seven yards against the Badgers in Week 1, while Western Illinois tight end Taylor Hill was limited to two for five. South Florida’s tight ends and H-backs did go for 127 receiving yards against Wisconsin last week, but the Badgers’ defense still ranks top 20 in the nation in passing defense, rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense. Vitale is most successful when NU can establish a running game; when linebackers are forced to stay honest in the box, Vitale can stretch the field. There’s a reason why the Badgers have shut down opposing tight ends in three of their four games, and I expect Vitale to see most of his catches on screens and short balls Saturday.
This was Vitale’s third 100-yard effort. The games that followed his first two? A combined 42 yards. Divide that 113 mark by three for Saturday.
Northwestern’s front line was vicious against PSU. Wisconsin has 10 sacks in four games, and is allowing just 2.8 yards per carry to opposing running backs. Something has to give here, and I’m taking Wisco’s formidable front seven. The Badgers tie for first in the country in methodical drives allowed; in other words, they have yet to allow a drive of 10+ plays in four games. Meanwhile, Wisconsin ranks 74th in explosion drives allowed, or drives that average 10+ yards per play. The Badgers are not getting beat at the line of scrimmage; they’re getting beat on big or broken plays. Does NU realistically have anyone that can be called on for the big play right now? No, Pierre Youngblood-Ary is not an acceptable answer.
The offense should have a miserable time against Wisconsin, but I do like Odenigbo’s string of dominant games to continue Saturday. Odenigbo won’t be responsible for stuffing Melvin Gordon, and his sacks haven’t been opportunitistic. Rather, Odenigbo has been beating opposing tackles cleanly, and though Wisconsin right tackle Rob Havenstein is one of the best in the Big Ten, I think Odenigbo gets a sack in the cheetah package. Northwestern is getting more creative with their usage of him.
Anthony Walker + the linebackers
Walker was the breakout star in the Penn State win, but received a lot of criticism from Pat Fitzgerald in Monday’s press conference. This one isn’t hard: Collin Ellis will get the start if he’s healthy, and it won’t matter either way against Melvin Gordon. The linebackers were fantastic last weekend, but against Gordon (who’s averaging nearly eight yards per carry) and tight ends that are 6-4 and 6-5, the unit will have a rough time defending the Badgers.
Even without Matthew Harris and Ibraheim Campbell, NU’s secondary looked sharp against Penn State. Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy has thrown four interceptions to five touchdowns, and Alex Erickson, who leads all Badgers receivers in catches and yardage by a wide margin, is still averging just 64 yards per game. NU’s pass rush is good, and while the Badgers should run all over the Wildcats, I expect the secondary to continue to shine.