Paul Chryst probably would have liked the bye week to come a little bit earlier in the season then week 10, but Wisconsin certainly took advantage of it to get a number of players healthy for the final two weeks of the regular season. It’s a critical two games for Wisconsin that demands the Badgers be as close to full strength as possible, especially when UW hosts No. 20 Northwestern Saturday.
Northwestern (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) enters having won its last three games by 3.6 points per game, signaling that it’s a team that is confidence late in games. The Badgers are 3-2 in the previous five matchups against Northwestern, including losing the conference opener last year in Evanston, Ill., and the Wildcats haven’t won in Madison since 2000.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week and need. Here are our seven players most important in helping the Badgers to a senior day victory over Northwestern.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Joel Stave QB (1): While the slow starts haven’t hurt Wisconsin over the last five games, Stave has struggled to get into an early rhythm on offense. That will be a challenge again this week with Northwestern allowing teams to score an average of 4.9 points in the first quarter and only have allowed five touchdowns in the opening 15 minutes this season. Those stats are part of the reason Northwestern ranks sixth in the Big Ten in total defense (320.4 yards). Despite the slow starts, Stave is averaging 219.6 passing yards over the last five games and will face a defense that – despite giving up only 184.2 passing yards this season – has given up at least 200 yards passing the last three weeks. Stave connecting on a couple of early passes could open up some shots down the field for Wisconsin, a nonexistent part of the offense this season.
2, Joe Schobert OLB (2): Schobert’s main assignment will need to be keeping containment of quarterback Clayton Thorson in the pocket, as Thorson is second on the team in rushing yards with 312. However, Thorson isn’t the same kind of rushing threat as Maryland’s Perry Hills, which Schobert and the defense held to minus-14 yards rushing on 11 carries. Schobert might not rack up a lot of stats but he will continue to get the attention of Northwestern’s offense, which should help open up other opportunities for the UW linebackers. Thorson is still developing as a passer (completing 53.1 percent), so Schobert applying pressure should help disrupt and prevent Thorson from getting into a rhythm passing the football, especially since he only had 82 yards passing against Purdue.
3, Alex Erickson WR (3): Erickson continues to be a steady presence in the passing game, even though everyone knows he’s the offense’s main target. But Erickson continues to deliver and move the chains, as he is averaging 13.2 yards per reception, a number that will be tested against a Wildcats defense allowing 9.8 yards per catch. If Erickson gets help in the passing game another receiver or a tight end, Northwestern will be forced to spread out its defense and put Erickson in man-to-man coverage. It will be interesting to see if Wisconsin decides to give Erickson a chance to run the jet sweep to find other ways of getting the football in his hands. Considering the struggles of the running game without Corey Clement, it might not be a bad idea.
4, Jack Cichy ILB (NR): Cichy has filled in very nicely for the injured Chris Orr at middle linebacker, as he has registered 18 of his 37 tackles, three of his four tackles for loss and both of his sacks in the last two games. With teams paying attention to outside linebacker Vince Biegel and Schobert, Cichy’s ability to make plays in the backfield has made Wisconsin’s defense even stronger. No matter his role Saturday, Cichy will need to assist in slowing tailback Justin Jackson, who has had a strong season rushing for 1,033 yards on 226 carries. Cichy will see plenty of Jackson, who averages 22.6 of the team’s 45.9 rushing attempts a game, and will need to prevent any long runs up the middle from a player averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
5, Michael Caputo S (6): Caputo will be another defender Wisconsin counts on to help make sure Thorson can’t have success in the passing game. Northwestern averages 10.5 yards per catch, and Caputo will need to be ready to limit the receivers’ yards after the catch. Third on the team with 51 tackles and with four pass breakups this season, Caputo has been a steady defender. Thorson on the year is averaging 23 pass attempts a game but over the last two weeks that number has gone down to 13.5 attempts a game. It is still to be seen how many opportunities Caputo will have to make a play in the passing game but he’ll be vital to breaking up plays and causing turnovers over the middle of the field if Northwestern opts to go with short intermediate passes.
6, Tyler Marz LT (7): Marz and the rest of the offensive line will need to find a way to bounce back after allowing four sacks and 12 tackles for loss against Maryland. If Marz and the rest of the offensive line don’t improve over the bye week, Northwestern could put up similar numbers. Marz will be tested by Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, who have combined for 21 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks on the season. Marz will need to make sure he uses good hand placement without holding and make sure neither can get the first step off the line of scrimmage. If Marz can consistently win in the trenches it will give the running attack at least a chance to succeed against Northwestern’s rush defense (136.2 yards). But as we’ve seen all year, if Corey Clement doesn’t play, it will be a struggle.
7, Vince Biegel OLB (5): Biegel should be able to assist Schobert and Cichy in finding ways of getting into Northwestern’s backfield, as the Wildcats could have trouble keeping contain of all three of them. The Wildcats have allowed 2.1 sacks a game, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten, so opportunities will be there to capitalize on. If Schobert can’t supply the pressure from the outside, it will be up to Biegel to make sure that Thorson simply can’t just step up and attempt a pass. Outside of being counted on to keep QB contain, Biegel will be counted on to help contain Jackson and stop any big gains when he does decide to bounce outside for a run.
Others to Note
Corey Clement RB: Clement’s status is uncertain for this weekend, but his return would alleviate a lot of pressure off Joel Stave and the passing game. It might be tough sledding at times against Northwestern’s run defense, but if Clement can have success, it should help Wisconsin strike a balance on offense.
Troy Fumagalli TE: Austin Traylor is on pace to play on Saturday and will provide another weapon in the passing game, but Fumagalli will still see plenty of targets. Stave will need someone else to rely on outside of Erickson to help move the chains, a role that Fumagalli has embraced all season.
Tanner McEvoy S: With four pass breakups on the season, and three interceptions the last two games, McEvoy has found a nice rhythm. If Wisconsin’s pass rush can be consistent and rush some throws, McEvoy will be a heavy playmaker within the defense.
Conor Sheehy NG: Wisconsin’s linebackers having success will start with Sheehy and him finding a way to plug up the middle to allow the backers to run free. Sheehy has been able to do his job consistently all season and ranks second on the team among defensive lineman with 24 tackles. Northwestern’s offensive line has given up 21 sacks this year, and Sheehy has been able to help pave the way for Wisconsin linebackers to register 18.5 of the team’s 24 sacks this season.