Nortwestern Wildcats (2-1 SU, 1-2 ATS) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (3-0 SU, 2-1 ATS)
College Football Week 5
Date and Time: Saturday, September 30 at 12pm ET
Where: Camp Randall Stadium
by Evergreen, Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: NW +14.5/UW -14.5
Over/Under Total: 52
The conference portion of the NCAA Football season is here and that means rivalries. Some conference clashes are better than others but playing the same team year after year leads to familiarity that can sometimes let the lesser team rise up and snag a win. Northwestern has been a thorn in Wisconsins side on more than one occasion over the years and they look to again knock off the Badgers this week in Madison. These teams have split the last eight meetings at four wins each and the Wildcats have been the dog in every game so in many way, they have the Badgers number. When Wisconsin has won, they have covered the spread so is this game follows suit, we will get either a UW blowout win or a NW straight up win.
The online betting sites have pretty much reached a consensus with the Badgers at -14.5 but you can shop around for a 14-point line which might be pivotal given the history between the teams. The over/under total opened at 52 but it is not uncommon to see that a point or two less as the early betting pushed the total down. Roughly 55% of the public money has come in for Wisconsin which is just another sign that the word is out regarding Northwesterns pesky reputation against the Badgers. UW is the 6th best team in the land according to the Sagarin computers with the same metrics ranking Northwestern at 41st. Both teams will be taking a step up in competition from what they have each seen so far. The Wildcats wound up on the wrong side of a 41-17 decision against Duke, the only other top-30 team they faced. The Sagarin offense-defense predictor is calling for a 28-14 Wisconsin win. Those models are essentially producing the most common outcome but those who are wary of the hook coming back to bite the Badgers might really want to search out those 14 point lines.
This series produced a hard fought battle last season with Wisconsin earning a 21-7 win. The Badgers had an woeful day passing but were able to gobble up nearly 40 minutes in time of possession behind the run game an effectively kept the Wildcat offense on the sideline. Wisconsin again features a strong running game but Alex Hornibrook has taken big strides since and has the Badgers at 13th in total yards and also 13th in points at 43.3 per game. Hornibrook is fresh off an 18-for-19 performance against BYU which set a school completion record and also threw for a career-high four touchdowns. His day could have been perfect as his lone incompletion was a juggle and drop in tight coverage but no matter what, his ascension to quality quarterbacking has Wisconsin looking like a legitimate contender to win the Big Ten. Look for the Badgers to have another solid day through the air as Northwestern enters as the 90th ranked defense against the pass and is allowing over 410 total yards per game. In a somewhat odd item, both teams are coming off their bye week.
While Northwestern has given up more than they have liked on defense, the offense is rolling along quite nicely. Clayton Thorson is has the passing game inside the top-30 at nearly 300 yards per game and the Cats are averaging 32.3 points per contest. The run game has netted eight touchdowns through three weeks but the yards per carry by the running backs have been pedestrian. You shouldnt expect the big rush this week either as Wisconsin is 10th in the country in rushing yards allowed, limiting the opposition to under 100 yards per game. Thorson is not a premiere running threat at QB but he can extend the play with plus mobility and make throws on the run. He should be careful not to force the ball against a Badger defense that has recorded five picks through three weeks.
Jonathan Taylor has been a revelation at running back for Wisconsin and that is saying a lot considering the backs who have come before him. An injury to game one starter Bradrick Shaw opened the door for Taylor and the freshman has run for 438 yards and five scores while averaging 8.3 yards per carry. Those are Melvin Gordon-like numbers and Wisconsin again has a top-notch back to tote the rock. Troy Fumagalli will be playing tight end in the NFL next year and he presents a tough matchup for the Northwestern linebackers. Fumagalli leads the team with 15 catches for 236 yards and three touchdowns. His 15.7 yards per reception average proves he is more than a possession receiver and he is the go-to on third down. The rest of the Wisconsin playmakers have filled in as needed with Quintez Cephus busting out for two receiving scores against BYU. Jazz Peavy has been kept quiet but look for a shock play from him after Paul Chryst has had a full week to add in some wrinkles.
Northwestern is cut from much of the same cloth as their opponent this week, including the focus on the tight end in the passing game. Garrett Dickerson leads the Cats with 14 receptions and will be looked to often to convert on third down. Ben Skowronek leads with 218 receiving yards and has a nice 18.2 yards per catch average to provide the pop and make the safeties stay away from the line of scrimmage. Northwestern is consistently well coached and almost never shoots themselves in the foot via penalties. Thorson is a junior, Dickerson is a senior, as is lead running back Justin Jackson. That upperclassman leadership will be key to NWs chances as Wisconsin has the talent advantage at most positions.
I do think this is a different Wisconsin team with Hornibrook playing at this new level. His arm strength is above average now and that gives the Badgers the ability to use nearly all of the field. They couldnt do that to a large extent last season and opposing defenses were able to take advantage of Wisconsin working in the smaller space. I dont see Northwestern as significantly better than they were last year but Wisconsin is, even with some key injuries and NFL departures. This was supposed to be the year for the Badgers, not last. This was the year when the best of the recruiting classes were upperclassmen. Many of those players saw meaningful time early in their careers and that shows as Wisconsin is very deep at many positions. If this was a 21-7 game in Evanston last year, I see a bigger margin in Madison. The Badgers will get 30 on the board and Northwestern will have to come up with four good quarters to get to 20. I think Wisconsin limits the run and picks off Thorson at least once. The 14.5 can make you nervous is you overthink some of the past results in this series but when Wisconsin wins, they win big. Look for a 34-13 Badger win.
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