UW v. Northwestern, five things to watch

BadgerNation.com's keys to Saturday's football game between the Badgers and Wildcats

Control the clock: Northwestern's spread offense is far from predisposed to the pass. The Wildcats are third in the Big Ten in time of possession after finishing 11th last season because of the emergence of the league's fourth-ranked rushing offense. NU actually heads into this game averaging a hair more rushing yards per game than Wisconsin (213.5 – 212.0).

The Badgers like to grind out wins behind Brian Calhoun's running, and are second in the league in time of possession as a result. Calhoun will be challenged for rushing supremacy Saturday, though, by the Wildcat freshman phenom Tyrell Sutton. In the first four games of his career, Sutton has 528 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. And NU recoups the services of Brandon Roberson this week. A sophomore, Roberson was supposed to be the Wildcats' starter this year before he was sidelined with an ankle injury in week one.

While Wisconsin might be matched in its ability to run the ball, the Badgers have a clear edge in rushing defense. UW's defensive line and linebackers have competed well, but the challenge this week is unique in facing a team that can run and pass as efficiently as Northwestern can out of a spread formation.

Tim McGarigle: If NU is going to slow down Calhoun and UW's offense, McGarigle needs to have an outstanding game. He is one of the best linebackers in the nation, let alone the Big Ten. He will provide quite the challenge for Wisconsin fullbacks Chris Pressley and Bill Rentmeester, who are filling in for the injured Matt Bernstein. They held up well against Indiana last week, but McGarigle is a more imposing target than what the Hoosiers possessed.

McGarigle and the rest of the Wildcats' defense, of course, will be trying its best to shed blocks and get to Calhoun. NU has not been particularly sound defensively this season. For that to change, McGarigle will have to star.

Beware exotics: Two years ago, the only points in the second half of the Wisconsin-Northwestern game came as the result of a fake field goal, which led to a Wildcats' touchdown. NU always seems to have some "exotic" plays up its collective sleeve. Coming off a bye week, Wildcat coach Randy Walker might look like Houdini.

Returner's delight: This feels like a broken record, but yet again two electrifying return men are set to dazzle. Wisconsin senior Brandon Williams is the only player in the nation ranked in the top six in both kick and punt returning. He is third in kick returning (35.3 yards per attempt), sixth in punt returning (19.5 yards per attempt) and has been named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week twice.

Northwestern's Marquice Cole is averaging an incredible 30.1 yards per punt return on seven attempts, the best average in the nation.

"I'll probably give him a shoutout the beginning of the game, see how he's doing," Williams said of Cole. "But hopefully I will be the best guy in the building that day."

The Badgers are allowing 10.5 yards per punt return this season and 27.2 punt return yards per game. Punter Ken DeBauche leads the Big Ten and is third nationally at 46.5 yards per punt, and UW is fifth in the conference in net punting (39.8 per attempt).

NU, meanwhile, is ninth in the league with a net punting average of 35.2 yards.

Certainly each team will focus on covering punts and kicks, but if either Williams or Cole is given a crease they can change the complexion of a game in a hurry.

Ryan Field: Northwestern's stadium, tiny by Big Ten standards, does not strike one as particularly intimidating. But the Wildcats have done a terrific job of creating a very real home-field edge that has gobbled up some formidable opponents in recent years, with NU's home wins over Wisconsin in 2003 and Ohio State and Purdue last season coming to mind.

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