BY JEFF BERNIER
The injury bug hasn’t just bitten the Wisconsin Badgers (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) this season, it has burrowed into them and feasted. All season long, the Badgers have been decimated by injuries. The picture becomes a little clearer on Saturday as offensive minded tight end Austin Traylor and star running back Corey Clement are expected back when Wisconsin hosts the streaking Northwestern Wildcats (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten).
While Northwestern does head into their matchup with the Badgers on a three game winning streak, there are some questions about the legitimacy of the Wildcats #20 national ranking. The three game winning streak came after an 0-2 stretch that saw them lose to both Michigan and Iowa by a combined score of 78-10.
How they perform will go a long way in determining the Wildcats stay amongst the 25 nationally ranked teams. Ditto for the Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin does have the same record as Northwestern but sports a better conference record.
Despite allowing 24 points two weeks ago in their matchup at Maryland, the Badgers feature one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Before the hiccup at College Park, the Badgers were allowing just 11 points per game to their opponents.
Northwestern, who has struggled mightily in recent weeks in terms of their aerial attack, will need a spirited effort from its freshman quarterback to have a shot in Madison on Saturday.
Clayton Thorson is just 14/27 for 140 yards passing, no touchdowns and an interception over his last two games. He remains a threat to run however averaging over 6 yards per carry over those same two games.
The ground is where the game will probably have to be won for Northwestern. No small feat considering the Badgers run defense is one of the most dominant in the country. Wildcats tailback Justin Jackson is third in the conference in rushing with 1,033 yards on the season, averaging a solid 4.6 yards per carry. The sophomore has racked up 302 of those yards in his last three games.
With Corey Clement back in the fold for Wisconsin, the Badgers have the clear advantage from the half back position heading into Saturday afternoon’s matchup. Dare Ogunbowale has done a fine job filling in for the oft-injured Clement. Alec Ingold, the Badgers goal-line weapon has too helped ease the pain of Clement’s absences.
Badgers senior quarterback Joel Stave will also benefit from the return of Clement, as he seems to be more comfortable with Clement in the game. It also provides Stave with another weapon through the air as Clement has become more adept at catching passes out of the backfield and turning them into net gains.
The way football games used to be won back in the day was pound the ball on the ground, play smash mouth defense while winning the field position game with solid special teams play. This old school style will be the key to victory for either team Saturday.
Turnovers will also be a key factor. Both teams take pretty good care of the football, but the Badgers defense turns other teams over at a spectacular rate, so the Wildcats will have to protect the football to have a shot. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald believes it to be the biggest key to his team’s success.
“Don’t turn the ball over. That’s the bottom line,” said Fitzgerald.
The Badgers, who have made a name for themselves in how dominant they have been running the football in recent years, have found ways to win this season throwing the football. And that is a credit to Joel Stave, who despite missing three quarters of the game at Illinois, has been one of the few constants for Wisconsin and company this season.
His steady if unspectacular play from the quarterback position has not been lost on Pat Fitzgerald, who knows he’ll have to game plan for Stave just as much as Clement and Ogunbowale.
“Been really impressed by Joel. I think he’s really had a terrific season,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s had to shoulder a lot with the running back situation with guys being out … tight ends being out. But Joel has been the one consistent, really impressive aspect of what they’re doing offensively.”
Wisconsin defeated Northwestern 35-6 in their most recent matchup October 12, 2013.
The home team has won the last eight matchups in the Badgers meetings with the Wildcats.
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 9
Game time: Saturday, November 21, 2:30 PM on BTN, BTN2; Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI