MADISON - When two conference schools don't play each other for two years due to the Big Ten's unbalanced scheduling, it's hard to get the full picture of how the two schools will match up.
Although Bret Bielema has gotten only bits and pieces of Northwestern's quarterback and defense over the last few weeks, there's one thing UW's head coach knows for certain – UW hasn't won in Evanston, Illinois, since 1999.
"It's a difficult environment but give credit where credit is due, Northwestern plays very well down there," said Bielema. "It's sometimes a different environment for our kids to walk into and something we addressed on Sunday."
The other hot topic of Sunday's meeting – a familiar face running the Wildcats defense.
It will be the first time Bielema has faced defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who served on Bret Bielema's UW staff in 2006 and '07, was fired after UW's 21-17 loss to Tennessee in the 2008 Outback Bowl. Bielema promoted Dave Doeren to sole defensive coordinator.
Hankwitz has revitalized Northwestern's defense the last two seasons. After allowing 20.2 points per game last season, fourth in the Big Ten and 27th nationally (a significant improvement from the 31 points per game average in 07), Northwestern has allowed 22.6 points in 11 contest this season – a number that is tied with Wisconsin.
The Wildcats also finished in the top 30 nationally in sacks (18th), pass efficiency defense (25th) and tackles for loss (28th) in 08, all huge improvements from the 07.
This season, Northwestern is fifth in the Big Ten in total defense (345.2 yards per game) and sixth in sacks with 24 – UW ranks one spot ahead in both categories.
"Mike is a very good football coach that had success here for two years," Bielema said. "I made a change and obviously, (Pat) Fitzgerald hired him up. We knew this day was coming. It's something I addressed with the players, but they do enough things now that he wasn't doing while he was here."
When asked what his relationship with Hankwitz – who admitted to be blindsided by the move - is like now, Bielema made a nervous laugh and paused, signally that there is still some uncomfortable ground between the two of them.
"One of the things I have already tried to pride myself in coaching now is business is business and personal is personal," Bielema said. "I really felt at the time that I needed to make a change. It wasn't indicated by (us) being real bad on defense. It's just something I felt inside of me and needed to move forward on."
"I've bumped into Mike a few different times at outings and we definitely say hello, but I am sure that I am not very popular in the Hankwitz' household."
Rush No More
After limiting the then-conference leading rushing offense to only 71 rushing yards, not only is Wisconsin the top rushing unit in the conference, averaging 208 yards per game, the Badgers are third in the conference in rushing defense, holding opponents to 99.6 yards per game rushing.
Despite letting three non-conference teams rush for over 100 yards, including 214 rushing yards against Wofford (which ran 55 running plays), Wisconsin had yet to allow a conference team to rush for over 100 yards, allowing an average of just 71.9 yards on the ground. This would be just the third time in school history Wisconsin has led the league in rushing defense in conference games (1949 and 1951 were the others).
"It's big and it doesn't happen very often," Bielema said. "I always felt that if you had someone who had a main rushing guy and you held him under 100 yards, you would more than likely have success, take away their best threat. That's what I kind of ingrained when I first came here."
In nine games against FBS teams the Badgers are giving up an average of 86.9 yards, a credit to a UW defensive line that has a capable eight-man rotation and solid linebackers contributing to the success of the run defense.
"Last year, you knew our four (defensive lineman)," Bielema said. "Now, you've got inside – Jeff Stehle, Dan Moore and Patrick Butrym have given us a steady rotation – and also Jordan Hein, who has given us (a critical) 5 to 10 reps. It's had a big effect."
Wisconsin has faced four of the top 22 rushing teams in the country this season (No. 6 Fresno State, No. 11 Northern Illinois, No. 21 Michigan and No. 22 Ohio State) and only allowed Fresno State's Ryan Matthews over 100 rushing yards (19 for 107).
"We just don't talk about it during the week when we are trying to beat Northwestern, we talk about it all the time," Bielema said. "Come 6 a.m. workouts January 23, we'll enforce that when we talk to him. Even though the spread is a pretty thing to do, if you are able to run the football effectively and you are able to stop the run, you'll have a pretty good chance to win football games."
UW will have a great opportunity to accomplish that goal. Northwestern is eighth in the conference in rushing (124.2 ypg) and don't have a player that averages over 35 rushing yards per game.
After breaking down the film, it was clear for Bielema that it was important to get his seniors a win in their final home game. Along those same lines, it was impressive for him to see that his seniors were a big reason why UW distanced itself from Michigan in the second half, as some of them played their best game in a UW uniform.
"He doesn't show up in a lot of statistics, but probably played his best football game overall his entire career here," Bielema said of Turner. "It was neat to see that on the way out of the stadium."
Defensively, O'Brien Schofield, who responded after Michigan threw double teams at him, and Jae McFadden, who Bielema said played his best game ever, were honored.
J.J. Watt was given the Special Team's MVP award after blocking Michigan's 19-yard field goal attempt, a play that happened after UW's defense stopped the Wolverines on three straight plays inside the three-yard line.
Extra Points: Right tackle Josh Oglesby looked better on Sunday after missing the Michigan game and should be ready for Tuesday's practice with two healthier knees. Currently, Jake Bscherer is listed as the starting right tackle on UW's depth chart. Oglesby is scheduled regardless for a surgery at the end of the season, but Bielema likes what both have done … UW and NU recruit against each other and admitted that it has gotten ‘a little nasty' out there … Bielema admits to doing some bowl prep, but only involving potential travel dates and practices and doesn't involve the coaching staff.