Gameday: Cats face huge challenge against gargantuan running Wisconsin game


Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

The Northwestern defensive line digs in during the team’s game against Maine. The Wildcats’ line will be key in slowing down Wisconsin’s rushing attack Saturday.

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

By junior linebacker Collin Ellis’s estimate, he alone missed seven tackles against Ohio State, part of a Northwestern clinic on how not to tackle a bruising running back. On Saturday, the Wildcats can’t afford a repeat performance.

But that’s easier said than done.

Wisconsin, NU’s opponent, is one of the best rushing teams in the country. The Badgers lead the nation with 7.4 yards per carry and top the Big Ten in rushing yards despite fewer attempts than half the conference.

NU football coach Pat Fitzgerald said the rushing attack reminds him of Wisconsin teams from the 1990s, when coach Barry Alvarez (now the the school’s athletic director) led the program to previously unprecedented relevance with help from backs like Heisman winner Ron Dayne.

“I-formation football,” Fitzgerald said, explaining the scheme. “Using very talented tight ends in a lot of different way to try to outnumber you at the point of attack.”

Carries for the Badgers in 2013 have been split almost evenly between James White and Melvin Gordon. Fellow running back Corey Clement has also seen extensive action for a team with 69 more rush attempts than pass attempts through five games.

All three backs have averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry, with Gordon’s incredible 10.3 mark leading the way. The sophomore is first in the conference in rushing yards (698) despite substantially fewer attempts than the rest of the top five.

White and Clement are close behind Gordon in yardage (473 and 334 yards, respectively), giving Wisconsin three of the conference’s 10 top rushers.

As much as those results are a product of talented ball carriers, they’re also attributable to the ability — and sheer girth — of the Badgers’ offensive lineman. Wisconsin has long been known for beefy lineman plowing holes for grateful running backs, and this year the tradition continues.

The Badgers’ five starting lineman average 321 pounds and all are at least 10 pounds heavier than the Cats’ biggest player.

At 265 pounds, NU senior defensive end Tyler Scott knows he’ll have his hands full with those linemen, figuratively and literally.

“It’s all about leverage and great footwork,” the honorable mention all-Big Ten senior said. “You’ve got to be more conscious of your fundamentals and your footwork. If you don’t keep your good footwork and you get your feet together or something, they’re just so strong that they can just toss you around.”

The Cats repeatedly failed to contain Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde, particularly in the second half of the their 40-30 loss to the Buckeyes on Saturday. The powerful running back tore through NU’s front seven, shedding tacklers for a career-high 168 yards and three touchdowns at Ryan Field.

“The things we need to work on, one for myself would be tackling,” Ellis said. “Around the defense we can be even tighter tacklers in general.”

Against an offense that will consistently create running lanes, the Cats need to work through blocks and bring down ball carriers the first chance they get. With starting defensive tackle Sean McEvilly injured, the onus is on fellow tackles junior Chance Carter and senior Will Hampton, as well as the linebacker unit, to prevent the big plays Wisconsin is capable of executing.

Ellis said the defense would watch extra film to help anticipate the Badgers’ play calls and focus on hitting the ball carrier rather than tackling with arms. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald, who said the team needs to get off the blocks more quickly, has made tackling a talking point in practice.

“That was a big thing that coach Fitz told us on Monday,” Scott said. “To be a good defense you’ve got to tackle and wrap up and bring those guys down because if not anybody in this league can go the distance.”

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