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October 11, 2013

All-Out Blitz: Northwestern

Welcome to BadgerBlitz.com's "All-Out Blitz,", where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. The Badgers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) will host the No. 19 Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday, with both teams coming off tough losses to the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Badgers had a week off to try and right the ship, while the Wildcats need to make sure they get up for another tough game that could help define their season. The game will air on ABC, and is scheduled to kick off at 2:30 p.m. CST.

In the meantime, here's what you need to know about Northwestern:

Head coach: Pat Fitzgerald (8th season @ Northwestern), 54-40
Northwestern All-Time Record: 501-636-44 (.443)
2013 Record: 4-1 (0-1 Big Ten)
Ranking: 19 (AP), 18 (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 33-56-5

Did you read this?

Walking the Beat: Northwestern

Season outlook

In the preseason the Northwestern Wildcats had every reason to be excited for their 2013 campaign. The vast majority of both their offense and defense return from a 10-win team last season, which included their first bowl victory in 63 years. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian came back in a unique two-quarterback system, which kept Northwestern's offense humming through the second half of last season. Most of their losses came on poor defensive ply late in games last season, so it seemed as though the Wildcats were just a few defensive stops away from having a really special season, both last year and this year.

This year

So far the Wildcats have lived up to the hype. They're 4-1 this season, and fought Ohio State to a one-possession game last weekend in Evanston. At this point they're one of the favorites in the Legends Division, which could set up a rematch of last week's game if the Wildcats get back on track and the Buckeyes keep winning.

To do that, the Wildcats will have to remain effective on offense. The Wildcats are currently converting 48.61 percent of their third downs, and average about 6.44 yards per play, which is the 27th-best rate in the country. The Wildcats will need to keep their two quarterbacks in a groove if they want to keep those rates up, too.

Kain Colter is the elder and more mobile of the two signal callers. But even though he's labeled as a running quarterback Colter has actually been a pretty effective passer during his career. He has completed 69 percent of his passes so far, and has completed 83 percent of his attempts so far this season. He's not a big downfield passer- he clocks in at just 6.8 yards per attempt. The Wildcats leave most of their big throws to Trevor Siemian, a junior who's completing 68.2 percent of his passes this season for 10.4 yards per attempt. He's much more of a traditional pocket passer than Colter, and it shows in the splits: the Wildcats pass about 50 percent of the time when Siemian is under center, whereas that rate drops by about 30 percent when Colter takes over. The Badgers will need to pay careful attention to who's in the game for the Wildcats, because their offensive tendencies do change depending on who's under center.

The Wildcats have a few more talented skill players apart from their quarterbacks, too. Venric Mark is a name to watch at tailback, although he's versatile enough to split out wide for the Wildcats when they want to give defenses a different look. Mark has played in just two games this season for the Wildcats, but averages about 5.9 yards per carry and is a big-play threat in the return game. He had a special teams touchdown against the Badgers in 2010, so keep an eye on him at all times.

At wide receiver the Wildcats seems to be splitting their targets between Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Rashad Lewis. Tony Jones already has 385 receiving yards this season on 27 receptions, while Christian Jones has 257 yards on 17 catches. The trio as a whole has combined for five of Northwestern's nine passing touchdowns so far this season, so they'll likely try to get them involved early against a raw Wisconsin secondary.

Defensively the Wildcats still leave a little to be desired- they let their opponents convert 45.68 percent of their 3rd downs, and opponents have scored on 90 percent of their redzone possessions against the Wildcats. However, the Wildcats have forced 14 total turnovers so far this season, including 11 interceptions. They've had at least one interception in every game this year, but they could do to cut down on some of their own offensive turnovers.

Matchup to watch: Wisconsin defensive backs vs. Northwestern's wide receivers

The Wildcats are going to try and test the Badgers downfield. They have some other explosive options in their arsenal, but the Badgers struggled to keep Arizona State and Ohio State's passing games in check and I think the prospect will be too tempting for the Wildcats to turn down. Dezmen Southward, Peniel Jean, Sojourn Shelton and company will have to make sure they don't lose receivers in coverage, or else the Wildcats will probably be able to compete with the Badgers point-for-point. The Badgers need to force Northwestern on to the ground, where their defense has been more sound against the run.

The pick: Wisconsin 31 Northwestern 24

I'm picking the Badgers, but I'm not completely comfortable with it. Their secondary is still a concern, and Northwestern could give them some problems if they can complete a few deep passes. But I think the Badgers will be able to run the ball on the Wildcats, who struggled against Ohio State on the ground. And although I'm expecting this to be a close game, in the back of my mind it wouldn't surprise me if the Badgers cover what I originally thought was a high point spread. The Badgers are favored by 10.5 points, but some of the advanced metrics I like suggest that the Badgers are under ranked and the Wildcats are a bit overrated. We'll see what happens in the game, but it'll be a fascinating matchup either way.

The point after:

Pat Fitzgerald is now that second-longest tenured head coach in the Big Ten, after spending seven and a half seasons at Northwestern. Only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz has been in the league longer.

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

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