Madison, WI (SportsNetwork.com) - Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats hope to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss as 19th-ranked Northwestern takes on the Wisconsin Badgers in a Big Ten Conference matchup at Camp Randall Stadium.
Northwestern held a 10-point lead over the Ohio State Buckeyes last week as their game at Ryan Field reached the mid-point of the third quarter. The Buckeyes charged back and outscored the Wildcats, 27-7, the rest of the way to claim a 40-30 win. The loss was the first of the season for Northwestern and dropped it to 0-1 in the conference standings. Fitzgerald is 1-0 on the road in 2013 thanks to the Wildcats' 44-30 victory over the Golden Bears at California in their season opener.
This will be the first time Wisconsin faces Northwestern under Gary Andersen, who has compiled a 3-2 record through the first five games of his head coaching tenure at the school. Wisconsin fell to 1-1 in league play as it lost, 31-24, at Ohio State on Sept. 28. The Badgers were off this past Saturday and will look to continue their five-game regular-season winning streak following a bye week.
Andersen will look to continue the Badgers' tradition of success against their Big Ten rivals from Evanston. Wisconsin holds a 56-33-5 all-time series lead over the Northwestern. The Wildcats are going to be out to avenge the 70-23 loss they suffered to the Badgers on Nov. 27, 2010, which was the most recent encounter.
"We love playing on the road," said Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. "We love having that mentality, us against the world. So, we're excited. We need to get on a roll here in Big Ten play, so looking forward to it."
The Wildcats successfully employ a two-quarterback system with pocket passer Trevor Siemian and the versatile Colter sharing the snaps on a regular basis. Siemian completed 13-of-18 pass attempts for 245 yards and two touchdowns against OSU, but also threw a costly interception in the fourth quarter. Colter connected on all 12 of his attempts for 98 yards and added receiving and rushing touchdowns. He also made a vital error, fumbling a snap on a crucial 4th-and-1 on the offense's final possession. Despite the return of star tailback Venric Mark, who missed the previous three games due to injury, Northwestern was limited to 94 rushing yards on 43 carries.
Mark should provide a boost to the offense that has averaged 474 yards of total offense and 39 points per game despite being without his services for the majority of the campaign. The senior tailback was one of the Big Ten's elite players in 2012 with 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on 226 carries. He rushed 17 times for 61 yards against OSU. Mark also reeled in four catches for 43 yards. The star of the loss to the Buckeyes was Rashad Lawrence, who had a breakout game with eight catches for 149 yards. The senior wideout had never reached the 100-yard receiving mark before in his career and had only three catches for 36 yards on the season coming into week six. Northwestern's usual go-to-guy in the passing game, Tony Jones, finished with only three catches for 23 yards.
The Wildcats' defense allowed 451 total yards to a very powerful OSU offense. Although the Buckeyes posted 40 points, two of their touchdown drives started with very favorable field position and another touchdown came on a blocked punt return. Northwestern has not been a dominant defensive squad on a consistent basis, however its opponents are averaging just 27 points per game. It had been very strong against the run, allowing only 118 rushing yards per game through four games. However, the Buckeyes gained 248 yards via their ground attack in week six. Northwestern's secondary is filled with playmakers, which has led to 11 interceptions with four returns for touchdowns. Junior Ibraheim Campbell has been out to prove he is an all-conference caliber safety with a team-high three interceptions already.
Northwestern needs to tighten up its rushing defense this week if it hopes to survive. As a team, Wisconsin is leading the nation with 7.4 yards per carry on 202 attempts. Melvin Gordon led all FBS players by averaging 10 yards per rush in 2012. The sophomore halfback has done a marvelous job of replacing Montee Ball as he ranks eighth nationally and first in the Big Ten at 139.6 rushing yards per game. Gordon's numbers are impressive considering he is part of a three-back committee. Senior James White has carried the ball a team-high 69 times for 473 yards and the team has received 334 yards courtesy of promising freshman Corey Clement's 44 rushes.
Wisconsin is not a one-dimensional offense by any means. In fact, it is one of just four teams to have amassed 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 passing yards this season. Junior quarterback Joel Stave is fourth in the conference with 211.2 passing yards per game.
Although Stave threw his fourth interception of the season at OSU, he went 20- of-34 for 295 yards and a pair of touchdowns against a talented defense on the road. Jared Abbrederis is the 12th most productive wide receiver in the FBS with 114.4 yards per outing. The senior is also second among Big Ten players with 6.6 catches per game.
The Badgers rank in the top 10 nationally in total defense (272.6 ypg) and scoring defense (14.6 ppg) due to their back-to-back shutouts of Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech. They also overmatched Purdue and limited the Boilermakers to only 180 total yards in their Big 10 opener. Wisconsin's defensive unit showed it is not invincible against the Sun Devils and Buckeyes.
"We can't give up the big play on defense," said Andersen. "We're young on the back end, but youth is not an excuse. It does not matter. We've got to get better. We can't let people get behind us. We've got to get better on third downs on defense overall."
ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly passed for 352 yards versus the Badgers, which could be a good sign for Siemian. He will need to be weary of Sojour Shelton, the first true freshman to start at cornerback for the Badgers since 1989. Shelton has lived up to the hype, recording two of Wisconsin's four interceptions.