Football: Wildcats prepare themselves for rowdy environment against Badgers

John Paschall, Assistant Gameday Editor

After an emotionally draining weekend, Northwestern heads to Wisconsin to take on a dangerous Badgers team in front of a raucous crowd at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald has been preparing his team the entire week by blasting crowd noise during practice, forcing the offense to use a silent snap count. Junior offensive tackle Paul Jorgensen said Madison is always a tough place to play, but the Wildcats will make the necessary adjustments during the week to succeed.

“It’s going to be a loud and hostile environment,” Jorgensen said. “We just got to hone into the ball. It’s our first time on silent this year. I think we’ll be ready.”

NU is 1-0 on the road so far this season, toppling Cal in its season opener. The drive to Wisconsin marks the Cats’ first trip outside of Evanston in more than a month.

The Cats have handled difficult road crowds well under Fitzgerald. Last year, NU won close road games at Syracuse and Michigan State. The Cats also took leads into the fourth quarters on the road against Michigan and Penn State. In 2011, Fitzgerald’s squad defeated No. 9 Nebraska in Lincoln, with then-sophomore Kain Colter taking over in the second half. 

“All those games we have won, for the most part, have gone down to the wire, and we’ve made plays when it mattered down the stretch,” Fitzgerald said of the team’s road success.

The last time NU played at Wisconsin was a game NU would like to forget. That meeting came two games after then-quarterback Dan Persa tore his Achilles tendon against Iowa. The Badgers took advantage of a depleted NU offense and ran all over the Cats, 70-23.

The Cats’ biggest challenge on defense will be containing the explosive duo of Badgers’ running backs Melvin Gordon and James White. The Badgers sport the top rushing attack in the Big Ten. After giving up more than 150 yards to Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde last week, junior linebacker Collin Ellis said the team has to tighten up in the interior of the defense.

“We just have to be stout on the inside,” Ellis said. “Fit our gaps, make tackles, that’s what it comes down to.”

Senior running back Venric Mark’s return sparked the Cats’ offense against Ohio State. The dynamic playmaker collected 60 yards rushing but also 43 receiving, including a 41-yard run that saw Buckeye defenders receiving a mouthful of stiff arm.

Last season, Mark was NU’s most explosive offensive player. He ran for 1,366 yards, with a gaudy 6.0 yards per carry average. In addition to his 12 touchdowns on the ground, Mark caught 20 passes for 104 yards and another score. 

“It was great to have him back,” Fitzgerald said. “He’ll be better this week than he was last week. First time really playing all season long … we were able to get him a lot of quality touches.”

Mark will surely have to run into stud linebacker Chris Borland, who Jorgensen thinks could be one of the better players the Cats will face all year.

“He’s an impressive player,” he said. “When we had the bye week last week watching Ohio State, he was making a bunch of plays out there. He’s real active.”

Borland racked up tackles last time he took the field. In the Badgers’ loss to Ohio State, the senior recorded 10 solo tackles and assisted on six others. It was his second game with at least 10 total tackles, and Borland has a total of 22 stops in two Big Ten games. 

Fitzgerald, a former linebacker, has a soft spot for those who play the position and has taken notice of Borland’s tremendous impact.

“He’s the real deal,” he said. “I told the offensive line that from what I’ve seen on tape so far, he’s as relentless a football player as I’ve seen this year, maybe a couple years.”

The trip north also brings a second challenge in as many weeks for the underclassmen. Last week, freshmen like cornerback Matt Harris played in their first Big Ten game.

Now, the Cats’ less experienced players will have to deal with a hostile conference crowd for the first time. Wisconsin averaged 80,006 in attendance last year — 30,000 more than Ryan Field held in a sellout against Ohio State.

The younger players who experienced their first Big Ten action on Saturday “played their fannies off” against the Buckeyes, according to Fitzgerald. Even though there is still room for improvement, he has a lot of hope for those rising stars.

“Just looking at the look in that group’s eye, they’ll be a lot better this Saturday after playing in that kind of environment and that kind of street fight,” Fitzgerald said.

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