Last week, the Wisconsin Badgers returned to Camp Randall where the team thoroughly dismantled the Illinois Fighting Illini. In that game, the Badgers never trailed and outscored the Illini in every quarter on their way to a 49-20 victory. Now, the 20th-ranked Badgers are on the road again where the team will face off against the 4-3 Northwestern Wildcats. Even though Wisconsin’s playoff hopes are over, the team still needs to take care of its remaining conference games if the Badgers hope to get back to another Big Ten Championship Game. As for Northwestern, this season has been a success one for the program. The Wildcats have a 4-1 conference record and actually lead the Big Ten West Division. A win over Wisconsin would give them a serious shot to make the Big Ten Championship Game, however, the Wildcats have had a pretty manageable conference schedule thus far and a matchup against the Badgers is definitely a step up in class.
Wisconsin is entering this game after an impressive all-around win against Illinois following that disappointing loss against the Michigan Wolverines. Wisconsin managed to overcome a blizzard for part of last week’s game as the team forced Illinois into five first half turnovers including three interceptions. It was a performance that the defense definitely needed as they had struggled in earlier weeks.
Wisconsin’s best offensive player is running back Jonathan Taylor, who had another great game last week. In 27 carries, Taylor had 159 rushing yards to bring his total on the season to 1,109 — second most in all of college football. However, an underrated contributor on the team’s offense this season has been backup running back Taiwan Deal. Deal’s college career has been plagued with injuries but he is making the most of his opportunities in his final season with the Badgers. This season, Deal has 353 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns while averaging an impressive 6.8 yards per carry. Last week, Deal rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. Although Taylor is definitely the focal point of this team’s offensive gameplan, Deal has carved out quite a niche for himself and I would expect him to continue getting touches as the season goes on.
One grey spot in last week’s performance was quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Inconsistency has plagued Hornibrook in recent weeks and it definitely showed against Illinois’ below average defense last week. Despite throwing three touchdown passes, Hornibrook missed a ton of wide open receivers all day long and threw two interceptions while completing 13 of his 22 pass attempts for 188 passing yards. This season, Hornibrook has shown flashes of brilliance at times, specifically in his three touchdown performance against Iowa, but he has been average at best for the majority of the season. He currently has 11 touchdown passes and over 1,200 passing yards this season but his six interceptions have hurt this Wisconsin offense.
To make matters worse, Hornibrook has played against Northwestern twice in his college career and has looked awful in those two games. In 2016, Hornibrook went 11-19 for 92 passing yards with no touchdowns as the Badgers defeated the Wildcats 21-7 at Ryan Field. In 2017, Hornibrook looked slightly better as he threw for 197 passing yards and a touchdown despite also throwing two interceptions as the Badgers won 33-24 in Camp Randall. As Hornibrook returns to Ryan Field for a third meeting with Northwestern, he will look to improve on his previous performances and try to avoid the turnover bug.
As for Northwestern, Pat Fitzgerald’s 13th season as head coach has gone pretty well up to this point as the team is in contention to win the Big Ten West. After finishing last season 10-3, Northwestern looked poised for another solid year with senior quarterback Clayton Thorson running the offense. After a disappointing loss to Akron earlier in the year, Northwestern responded by upsetting then-ranked Michigan State in East Lansing before dispatching Nebraska and Rutgers.
Northwestern’s offense is led by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson whose arm and experience have helped the team put up some points. This season, Thorson has thrown for over 1,900 passing yards and nine touchdowns while also contributing two rushing touchdowns. However, in his entire college career, Thorson has been turnover prone which has hindered the offense’s consistency. Since becoming the starter in 2015, Thorson has thrown a whopping 37 interceptions including seven already this season. Luckily for Northwestern, Thorson did play well against Wisconsin last season as he threw for three touchdowns. Now, Northwestern still has an outside shot of winning its first conference championship since 2000, but Thorson will need to help orchestrate an upset this week in order for that to happen.
For my prediction, I have to side with Wisconsin. The Badgers are the better team and should showcase their excess talent this Saturday against an inferior foe. Despite Northwestern being 4-1 in conference play, the Wildcats barely beat Nebraska and Rutgers who are a combined 2-13 overall. I think that the Wildcats have benefited from a relatively easy schedule and expect the team to struggle a bit in one of its first real tests.
Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 17