At the Big Ten Media Kickoff Luncheon in August, newly named Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald stood in front of the ‘world' for the first time. It almost brought me to tears when you would hear him answer question after question about the loss of the Wildcats' former head man Randy Walker. Walker, 52, passed away of a heart attack in June. He was known for his uptempo, fiery style on the sidelines. You could never count the ‘Cats out of a game with Walker at the helm. "I am not sure you can ever replace Coach Walker," Fitzgerald said in August. "We just hope to honor him with our play. To me, that keeps him in our hearts and on our minds forever." I think the question has just found itself an answer.
IT FINALLY HAPPENED
The BadgerNation has been patiently awaiting the arrival on the scene from a wide receiver. Well, last week it finally came to light. Paul Hubbard became the first Badger since Brandon Williams vs. Auburn in the Capital One Bowl to top the 100 yard receiving mark. "He has been under the microscope a little bit since last year." Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said of Hubbard. "This year more so because of who we lost. He is going to be a key to our offensive success." Bielema made these statements at the Badger football media day in August. Hubbard has the speed to ankle lock a defensive back, it is his hands that have been scrutinized a bit in the newspapers. After his six catch, 122 yard performance last week in Indiana, he is telling all the naysayers "hello again". Cue Neil Diamond.
NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE vs. UW OFFENSE
Northwestern has really not been known for its' defense over the past couple of years. The new head coach is less than 10 years removed from an All-Big Ten career as a linebacker. Those were the days. The Wildcats (2-3) rank in the bottom half of the Big Ten in every statistical category on the defensive side of the ball. Northwestern gives up 134.20 rushing yards per game (8th in BT). Contrast that with PJ Hill averaging 119.60 per game, part of the 162.80 team rushing yards, and you have a nightmare in waiting. The Wildcats bright spot is being ranked sixth in the Big Ten in the pass defense category, giving up 184 yards per contest. Bad news. QB John Stocco is entering this game on a passing high after completing 15 of 17 for 304 yards and three TD. The team is ranked 7th in the league, averaging 200.4 yards passing each week. In total, the Wildcats give up 318.2 yards per game. Wisconsin is ranked 8th in the Big Ten in total offense at 363.2 yards each contest. KEY MATCHUP: Again, I see Travis Beckum as being the key here. PJ Hill is going to spread the field out by running the ball between the tackles and off the edge via the stretch running plays. Northwestern, much like Indiana, has had difficulty covering the zone spots (hash mark and deep edge) which allows a team to hit the 12-18 yard passing routes with high success rates. Hubbard has confidence that will translate into another solid game. Stocco will have another big day as well. But, Beckum needs to stretch the middle of the field for full out Badger onslaught.
NORTHWESTERN OFFENSE vs. UW DEFENSE
This is where the ice is introduced to fire. When you look at total offense and defense stats alone, you see the melting process on paper. Northwestern is ranked 10th in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging 306.2 yards per game. Wisconsin is giving up just 252.8 each week, 53 yards less than the Wildcats average. The Badgers are number one in the Big Ten in passing defense, allowing just 134.8 ypg. That is not good news for a Wildcat team still searching for a QB identity. Oh, by the way, Northwestern averages one yard less than the Badgers allow (133.6) each game. If the Wildcats want to be successful, they better do so on the ground. Wisconsin is giving up 118 rushing yards per week. Northwestern, led by Tyrell Sutton, is gaining 172.6 rushing yards. Sutton is ranked 7th in the league with a per game average of 77.4 . KEY MATCHUP: Wisconsin LB's against Sutton. The diminutive Sutton is deceptively quick, and a good pass receiver out of the backfield. Northwestern likes to stack up the middle with pass receivers, so Mark Zalewski, DeAndre Levy, and Jonathon Casillas will be busy. If the men up front do their job on defense, the going should be fairly normal for the good ship Badger LB. If Sutton is able to stretch the field off the edges, Zew may want to pull the rest of his hair out. In the end, I think the Badger defense holds strong.
TEN GAMES – NO ADVANTAGE
Since 1994, the Badgers and Wildcats have taken the field against one another 10 times. Each team has won five games, including a 51-48 thriller in Evanston Illinois last season. Many fans point to that game as the key to the season. If the Badgers win the game, who knows, they may have gone on to beat Penn State or Iowa and claim a BCS bowl bid. Revenge is always sweet. And, when you get it against the Purple People Eaters, it makes it colorful as well. Here is hoping that "1-0" will not only ring true this week, but for the career record of Bret Bielema against Northwestern (for comparison, Barry Alvarez was 7-7).
BREWER TO TAKE THE FIELD IN MADISON
It looks as though Northwestern QB Mike Kafka is still nursing a hamstring injury. Redshirt freshman Andrew Brewer is going to start his second consecutive game as the Wildcats' signal caller. In his weekly teleconference on Tuesday, Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald explained his situation. "I just do not feel Mike is all there yet, and I do not want to risk injuring him for the season." But, Fitzgerald also stated that he feels Kafka could be used in a reserve role if necessary. The other Wildcat QB, CJ Bacher, is almost recovered from a stress fracture. "CJ could be used, also." Fitzgerald said. "Whichever guy is more healthy, would be the one we use." For the time being Brewer is on the clock.
I predicted in my preseason article ( CLICK HERE) that Wisconsin would win this by a wide margin, 41-21. I still think the margin will be wide, but the score will change. With the uncertainty at QB for the Wildcats, and the Badger defense tearing things apart, I like a score to be lower and more convincing. PJ Hill will do his normal thing of 110+ yards and two TD. Stocco will have another efficient day, perhaps not 304 yards this week. The defense will keep the ‘Cats to below 250 yards of total offense. I think the special teams breaks out as well. WISCONSIN 34, Northwestern 7