Northwestern, No. 18 Wisconsin embrace defensive mentality

NCAA Football

Resurgent Wisconsin has climbed back into the thick of the Big Ten West race, but the host Badgers have learned to never overlook Northwestern.

Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) has won five straight after a 1-3 start with three losses to ranked teams, including a pair of conference defeats. Northwestern (3-6, 1-5) has lost three straight.

The Badgers climbed to No. 18 in the College Football Playoff poll.

Wisconsin is in the four-team logjam atop the West Division with Minnesota, Iowa and Purdue, each at 4-2. Wisconsin has beaten Iowa and Purdue and closes the regular season at Minnesota.

Northwestern and Wisconsin have split their last 16 meetings, although the Badgers have won six of the last seven at Camp Randall Stadium. The Wildcats are 0-3 on the road this season.

“Always a team that you look forward to playing because you know you’ve got to earn everything that you’re going to get,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I think that’s why those games have been what they’ve been And, our guys know that. It’s always a physical game and it’s a team that you’ve got to go out and play and execute against.”

Last season, the 19th-ranked Wildcats posted a 17-7 victory at home over No. 10 Wisconsin, forcing five turnovers, including three interceptions and a lost fumble by Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz.

In 2018, Northwestern upended another ranked Wisconsin team 31-17 at Evanston, Ill. Northwestern’s last win at Madison was 13-7 in 2015. Since Chryst took over at Wisconsin in 2015, the teams have split six games and Northwestern is the only West Division team with more than two wins against the Badgers.

Wisconsin, coming off a 52-3 rout of Rutgers to become bowl eligible for the 20th consecutive season, features the No. 1 defense in the country. The Badgers are first in total defense (213.8 yards per game), rushing defense (54.7 ypg) and yards per rush (1.90), and rank fourth in scoring defense (15.4 points per game).

“This defense is No. 1 in the country for a reason,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They’re veteran, they’re tough, they’re violent, they’re well-coordinated, they fit things right, they don’t mistakes.”

The Badgers have rediscovered their traditional power running game, but could be without leading rusher Chez Mellusi, who suffered a left knee injury in the win over Rutgers. Bruising 238-pound freshman Braelon Allen has come on to rush for more than 100 yards in five straight games since moving into the rotation.

The running game has taken some pressure off Mertz, who completed 11 of 16 for 240 yards with three touchdowns and one interception against Rutgers. Mertz threw six interceptions in the first three games, but just two since.

Northwestern is coming off a 13-7 loss at home to Iowa. Quarterback Andrew Marty made his second career start and first of the season, completing 25 of 44 passes for 270 yards and the Wildcats lone touchdown.

The Wildcats have been plagued by inconsistent quarterback play. Hunter Johnson opened as the starter, followed by Ryan Hilinski, who was replaced two weeks ago by Marty in a 41-14 loss to Minnesota.

Northwestern is averaging 342.2 yards offense per game, including 151 on the ground. Evan Hull is the leading rusher with 791 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per carry with five touchdowns.

The Wildcats give up 414.2 yards per game, including 224.9 on the ground. Northwestern held Iowa to 176 yards through the air, the fourth straight game and seventh time this season holding an opponent to fewer than 200 yards passing.

–Field Level Media

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