Preview: Unselfishly Consistent

There are no egos and complaining, even though their numbers have taken a hit. No.5 Wisconsin has one of the most explosive offenses in the country because of its balance and its teamwork. When the Badgers face off with Northwestern on Senior Day, that offense could lead to at least a share of the conference championship.

MADISON – Of the abundance of reasons Scott Tolzien committed to the University of Wisconsin, this Saturday provides the three big ones.

For starters, the fifth-year senior quarterback, who got a scholarship offer a mere two weeks before the 2006 national signing day, gets to compete for his dream school at his home stadium one final time as a team captain.

The other two reasons are what he and his teammates listed as goals before the season even started: win a Big Ten Championship and play in the Rose Bowl.

"It's a pretty unique situation and a special one," Tolzien said. "We just have to capitalize, cash it on it and play our best on Saturday."

No.5 Wisconsin has put itself in position to win the school's 12th conference title and first since 1999 with a victory over Northwestern Saturday in part because of Tolzien, who is 20-4 as a starter, but in large part because of an offense that has been labeled as balanced and explosive.

Ranked seventh in the country in scoring, averaging 40.9 points per game, the Badgers (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) are averaging 440.3 yards of total offense per game and have scored on 45 of 71 possessions (63.4 percent) in league play, not including five possessions on which UW ran out the clock.

It's been a stark contrast from the Badgers' conference opener, when the offense struggled to turn turnovers in points, move the ball consistently and be productive in a 34-24 loss at Michigan State Oct.2. Instead of wallowing in their pity, the offense simply moved on.

"We just had to make that next game that much more important," Tolzien said. "It was early in the season, so the focus was just to improve."

But even more important than the yards and production is the real trait that makes the offense tick: unselfishness. With the Badgers possessing so many running and passing weapons for Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst to utilize, the statistics are subdued and misleading, just the way the group likes it.

"We definitely know there aren't enough footballs to go around for everyone but the production is very high across the board," said senior wide receiver Isaac Anderson, who is third on the team with 22 receptions. "We understand that we have a great running game and are going to pound the ball. We know our roles and when we get the opportunity, we'll make the best of it."

Added Tolzien of his senior wide receivers: "Those guys have been huge this year. There statistics won't spin your head, but the little things that they do make them as important as anyone in the offense."

Even with junior running back and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay sitting out the last two games, the Badgers have been running without trepidation. Wisconsin is the only team in the country to have three running backs who have gained at least 600 yards. Even more eye-opening than James White' 895 yards and Montee Ball's 686 yards, all three backs have 13 touchdowns.

If there were any qualms about the running game not be superior, consider that the Badgers ran 29 consecutive run plays against Michigan, a series that went for 171 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry.

"You are fortunate when you have two guys that can step in and fill the load," said Running Back Coach John Settle, who also expects Clay, who has rushed for 929 yards and over 100 yards six times, back in the fold after missing the last two games with a MCL sprain.

"The young guys have accepted the challenge in filled in nicely. We've been able to have two backs healthy at one time throughout the season. The attrition of the season has allowed all those guys an opportunity to play."

If one follows statistics, there will be plenty of opportunities for players to get their licks in on Saturday. After they stunned the Badgers in last season's conference finale, Northwestern (7-4, 3-4) is not as explosive offensively and not the same team without junior quarterback Dan Persa, who was lost on Nov. 13 because of an Achilles' tendon injury.

The Wildcats are also problematic against the run, as former UW defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz' unit is eighth in the conference in run defense (172.1 ypg and 17 TDs) and allowed Illinois to rush for 519 yards in its 48-27 victory at Wrigley Field last Saturday.

After the Badgers ran for 357 yards and 6.2 yards per carry against Michigan, Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008 after a career in which he helped Northwestern to a two-year Big Ten record of 15-1 and leading the Wildcats to the 1996 Rose Bowl, doesn't expect anything too fancy from the UW offense.

"The fun thing when you play teams like the Badgers, ‘We're going to run it here. If you stop us, good. We're going to run it here again,'" Fitzgerald said. "For me, it's a linebacker's dream. You know what they're going to do and the challenge is to stop them. No one has really done it very well this year. So, now it's our opportunity."

Should UW's ground game keep its traction, it would be a fitting way for the Badgers to end their season, using the potent running game to clinch at least a share of the conference crown.

"We lost to (the Wildcats) at their place on their senior day," senior tight end Lance Kendricks said. "This year, it makes it all the better. To get a nice victory to end our season and win a piece of the championship would be a great way to end it."

Northwestern (7-4, 3-4 Big Ten) vs. No.5/5/7 (AP, Coaches, BCS) Wisconsin (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, November 27 at 2:30 p.m. CT

Stadium –Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)

Television - ABC (Dave Pasch, Bob Griese, Chris Spielman and Jeannine Edwards)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas), Satellite Sirus (ch. 90) and XM (ch. 196)

Series – Wisconsin leads 55-33-5 (UW leads 24-14-2 in Madison)

Last Meeting – Northwestern won, 33-31, on Nov. 21, 2009 in Evanston

Series Notes:

The home team has won each of the last five games between the two teams.

This will be the teams' first meeting in Madison since 2006, a 41-9 Badger victory. P.J. Hill ran for a career-high 249 yards in that game. That is the 11th-best single-game performance in UW history.

Including this season, UW has entered its game against Northwestern ranked in the top 20 in eight of the last nine meetings.

The teams have split the last 22 meetings, dating back to 1984.

Northwestern's last win in Madison came in 2000, a 47-44 victory in double overtime. The teams combined to score 51 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Wisconsin Notes:

Dating back to last year, Wisconsin has won eight consecutive home games. The Badgers have only won nine of more straight home games eight times in school history. UW has reached the 11-win mark just twice in school history (1998 and 2006).

UW leads the country in fewest penalties per game, averaging just 3.0 flags per game. Wisconsin's 30.3 penalty yards per game is good for third in the country.

The Badgers have been ranked at least 20th in the Associated Poll every week this season. UW has accomplished that only four previous times in school history (1952, 1954, 1958 and 1998).

UW is bowl-eligible for a school-record ninth-straight season, including all five of head coach Bret Bielema's seasons. Entering this season, only 12 schools in the country had a longer current streak than Wisconsin, including just one Big Ten team (Ohio State).

Wisconsin ranks 12th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 239.9 yards per game on the ground. In the past two games, UW has rushed for a combined 695 yards. Against Ohio State and Iowa, the third and sixth-ranked rushing defenses, respectively, in the country, the Badgers ran for 326 yards and six TDs.

Northwestern Notes:

NU has won four or more conference games five times in the past seven years. The Wildcats are bowl-eligible for a fourth straight season and the fifth time in the past six years.

November has been a good month for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats. Since taking over as NU's head coach in 2006, the Wildcats have posted a 10-6 record in November, which includes a 7-3 record since 2008. Four of those seven wins have come against top-25 clubs.

Northwestern junior linebacker Bryce McNaul, along with Wisconsin senior linebacker Blake Sorensen and Wisconsin sophomore defensive tackle Brendan Kelly were teammates at Eden Prairie High School in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Northwestern has won 24 games since the start of the 2008 season: that ranks as the 26thmost among FBS programs during this span. Other programs with 24 wins since 2008: East Carolina, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.


Northwestern's defense has some respectable characteristics. The Wildcats have forced 20 turnovers this season, fifth-best mark in the league, and are active on third downs, holding opponents to only 35.5 percent. Problem is, opponents seem to not get to third down very often.

Northwestern is poor against the run, allowing 165 or more yards five times, and have surrendered 240 or more passing yards in seven games. Illinois racked up 519 rushing yards and five touchdowns at Wrigley Field, and you can guarantee the Badgers noticed. Wisconsin is 26-2 under head coach Bret Bielema when running for at least 200 yards. They may get to that number by halftime, especially with the Wildcats throwing out freshman quarterback Evan Watkins for just his second career start.

As did the oddsmakers, which have put the fifth-ranked Badgers as 23-point favorites. Isaac Anderson said it best to me at the beginning of the week. If UW loses this game, they will regret it the rest of their lives. Wisconsin has fumbled the ball before when they are in position to win at least a share of the conference title. For a team that rarely turns the ball over, I have a feeling it will be a very Happy Thanksgiving on Monroe Street.

Wisconsin 48, Northwestern 20

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 8-3

Against the Spread: 9-2

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