Wisconsin comes out of the bye week facing a familiar foe, the Northwestern Wildcats, on Saturday afternoon to open up Big Ten conference play.
After playing three games against non-conference competition that generally is not up to par with Wisconsin, the season is starting to ramp up.
“It’s business as usual, but let’s not beat around the bush. We understand, you know what I’m saying,” running back Chris James said.
“Big Ten week and it’s not like our schedule changes or anything like that but now we know alright, because now our games are counting towards something and that was our first goal to win the Big Ten West.”
Wisconsin will face the first rung on the ladder to that goal on Saturday.
Northwestern’s secondary has been bit by the injury bug with multiple guys in and out of the injury report already in the season. With a lack of depth and skill in the secondary Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook may have an opportunity to build off of a big game against BYU.
“I mean it’s a little hard to say just because they lost a lot to injury so far this year, I think they’ve lost like three guys. But they still have an experienced safety who we know is a good player,” tight end Zander Neuville said of what they may face on Saturday.
That safety is senior Godwin Igwebuike, who has been a steady presence on Northwestern’s defense.
In 2017 he has totaled 22 tackles to go along with two pass breakups. Igwebuike has also forced a fumble which he recovered for 45 yards. Northwestern’s defense, in total, only has two interceptions through three games.
With the injuries, Northwestern may employ a more conservative coverage style, giving up short passes in hopes of preventing big plays. Hornibrook and the Wisconsin offense have thrived off of big plays this season.
Against BYU, Hornibrook was near perfect with a 34 percent completion percentage gaining 256 yards through the air and four touchdowns.
Looking to help break through for big plays with Hornibrook will be freshman wideout Danny Davis who had two catches for 67 yards against BYU.
Post bye-week, Davis feels fresh and is ready for the challenge.
“I feel good, got some rest but still stayed sharp,” Davis said. “We didn’t lose any momentum.”
Using the bye-week to stay sharp and get some rest was a shared testament between all of the players on offense.
“Bye week was great. It was definitely a chance for us to just take a deep breath and understand what’s at hand and get our bodies back,” running back James said.
James will be one of three running backs entering a new dynamic in the backfield this season. Up until this week, James, Bradrick Shaw and Jonathan Taylor shared the starting role but with the dominant play of Taylor, the starting position has been wrestled away.
“For us it’s just about trying to be a three-headed monster. We all know we all can play and that we can lead the team. We are all thrown into roles to help the team,” James said.
Up front Wisconsin will be facing a mix of experienced players and explosive, young players.
Freshman middle linebacker Paddy Fisher leads the team in tackles with 29 to go along with .5 tackles for loss. Senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster has accumulated 3.0 tackles for loss and also has tallied 1.0 sacks through three games.
“They’re a really solid group. They play physical, they play tough and they bring back their two D-tackles. They have some players with some experience. I think it will be a really good test for us up front,” Neuville said.
“That’s mostly just a story line. I think we know Northwestern’s a really good team so we don’t view it as a trap game. We approach it the same and we want to play our best and the coaches always say the best team that shows up on Saturday is going to win so we’re just preparing to do that.”
In modern times, Northwestern has been the quintessential trap game season in and season out for Wisconsin. In the past three years Northwestern is 2-1. The overall record however favors Wisconsin handily with a 58-35-5 record.
Like James stated, Wisconsin’s first goal is to win the Big Ten West. Saturday is step one.
“This is our first shot at doing that. Those first weeks were nice and we got wins but coach always says we’re about one goal first,” James said.