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October 10, 2013

Walking the beat: Northwestern





The Badgers have a big game this week against the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats, with both teams coming off disappointing losses to No. 4 Ohio State. Both Wisconsin and Northwestern would like to get back in to the win column this week, so I asked Louie Vaccher of WildcatReport.com a few questions about the Wildcats, and I've included his answers below.

Thanks again to Louie for giving us some great insight!

It's been a long time since these two teams met at Camp Randall Stadium last time in 2010. Could you give us a quick summary of what's been going on at Northwestern since that game? Where are they as a program now compared to 2010?

Louie Vaccher: That 2010 game in Madison is one that Northwestern fans are trying to suppress in their memories. Star quarterback Dan Persa went down with an injury in a win over Iowa two weeks before, and the still shellshocked Wildcats got hammered, 70-23 - and the game wasn't really as close as the score, believe it or not. That's what happens when you turn the ball over SEVEN times.

Northwestern is a very different team now. Offensively, they run the ball a lot more. While that team had Dan Persa and little else, this one has established a legitimate ground game with Venric Mark, and he and Kain Colter are probably the most explosive QB-RB tandem in the Big Ten when they are running the option. On defense, the Wildcats are much more athletic than they were just three years ago, a result of an upgrade in recruiting.

The dual-quarterback system gets a lot of attention, but I'd like to get your take on it. How did Northwestern start using it, and how often do they rotate the QBs?

LV: I used to be a proponent of the old adage, "if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none." But Northwestern over the last two seasons has changed my mind. They have managed to somehow employ two quarterbacks who complement each other and kept them both happy.

Colter is QB 1A and will start and get the majority of snaps, while Trevor Siemian is 1B and will get anywhere from 25 to almost 50 percent. The Cats generally go into each game with a strategy for how they will use each of them, but once the game starts, they let the defense, the situation and momentum determine which one they use. The thing that makes Northwestern unique is that they are very different offenses when each is behind the center. With Colter, they will run a lot of zone-read runs and options, and with Siemian they will spread the field and throw vertically. So the defense has to make adjustments from series-to-series, and occasionally play-to-play. Plus, against Ohio State, they used Colter as a slot receiver with Siemian at QB for the first time this season. That's something else that Wisconsin will have to prepare for this week.

How has Northwestern's defense played so far this season? Is this group better than the past few units the Wildcats have brought to the table?

LV: Northwestern's defense turned in its best performance of the season by far last Saturday against Ohio State. The Cats had shown a susceptibility to the big play through the first four games, but they held the Buckeyes to just one play over 20 yards. They still rank dead-last in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 286.6 yards per game. However, that's slightly misleading because those big plays have skewed the statistics; they have been a little better than that ranking would indicate.

This Wildcat defense is much better than the last one you saw up in Madison, that's for sure. They aren't going to beat anyone with their defense, but they are generally pretty decent against run-heavy offenses like Wisconsin's. The worry going into Saturday is that Ohio State pounded NU between the tackles and wore them down. The Buckeyes' Carlos Hyde rushed for 168 yards and three touchdowns and was the real difference in the game.

The Wildcats are coming off a tough loss at home to Ohio State- is there any danger that they'll come out flat at Camp Randall on Saturday? How is the team handling that loss to the Buckeyes?

LV: It's cliché, but Northwestern has been pretty good at taking it "one game at a time" under coach Pat Fitzgerald. Last season, they came back after all three of their losses and won the next week - all the more impressive when you consider that all three were crushing setbacks in which the Cats blew fourth-quarter leads (as they did again last week). Plus, I think that the Ohio State game gave them some confidence. They are now battle-tested and know that they can go toe-to-toe with the No. 4 team in the country. So I don't really think there will be much of a hangover. In fact, after watching the film, Fitz said that the team is a little ticked off. They felt like they should have won the game.

Finally, what's your prediction for the game? Does Northwestern rebound with an impressive road win, or do they drop their second straight game?

LV: I initially thought that I would call for a loss this week. Coming off of a tough, demoralizing defeat in which their run defense looked suspect for the first time this season, I thought that going to Madison to take on a bruising, physical team like Wisconsin - coming off of a bye, no less - would be a little too much for the Cats to swallow. However, after watching the Ohio State game again, I was even more impressed with NU's performance.

I think Northwestern's offense will move the ball and score enough points; the question is whether the defense can hold up well enough to get the win. (Incidentally, that's the question going into just about every week for NU.) The Cats will sell out to slow down the running game and dare Joel Stave to beat them with his arm. And if the secondary plays like it did last week, I think they can pull off the upset. They will play their customary Cover-4, shade a safety over to cover Jared Abbrederis and take their chances with the rest of the Badger receivers.

I'm going to say Northwestern wins it, 37-34.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.



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