Football: Northwestern to battle crowd, defense in Top 25 matchup Saturday

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Daily file photo by Jacob Swan

Clayton Thorson looks back at the sideline as the offense waits to snap the ball. The redshirt freshman quarterback will have to deal with a loud crowd on the road in Wisconsin, similar to the ones at Michigan and Nebraska.

Claire Hansen, Reporter

The No. 18 Wildcats (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) will have their hands full this weekend when they travel to Madison to face No. 25 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) in a top-25 matchup.

The Wisconsin defense and the Badgers’ home field advantage are among Northwestern’s biggest challenges, coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a press conference on Monday.

“(Wisconsin is) just absolutely outstanding on defense — playmakers at all three levels.” Fitzgerald said. “Everyone’s on the same page, very fundamentally sound, and they play their tails off. Just outstanding.”  

Wisconsin is the No. 3 total defense in the country, allowing just 4.5 yards per play. The Badgers have been particularly effective this year at stopping the rushing game.

These statistics are particularly troubling as NU has struggled with offensive consistency. The Cats are last in the Big Ten in scoring offense.

Fitzgerald said the strength of the offensive line will be crucial in Saturday’s matchup.

“We’ve got to get fundamentally better up there,” Fitzgerald said. “Footwork, hand placement, eyes, communication on who we’re targeting, playing cohesive as a group of five no matter who’s in the game — that’s a big emphasis for us.”

Fitzgerald also said playing in Madison at Camp Randall Stadium, a venue that holds over 80,000 fans, will test the Cats.

Despite the daunting arena, senior defensive lineman Dean Lowry said he’s looking forward to the atmosphere.

“It’s a great college environment. It’s a very loud place,” Lowry said. “We played there two years ago, and, like coach Fitz was saying, it’s one of those places that you enjoy looking forward to playing at in the Big Ten. I think we’re all ready for the challenge.”

To prepare for the noise, senior superback Dan Vitale said the team will most likely simulate crowd noises during practice this week.

The Cats have played at similar stadiums this year, losing to Michigan in the Big House and winning against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium. Vitale said the experiences at those large stadiums will prove useful to the younger players on the team going into Saturday’s game.

“We’ve got to prepare the younger guys a lot more for that hostile environment,” Vitale said. “But those younger guys have experienced Nebraska and a lot of them have experienced the Big House in Michigan as well. Those are two huge stadiums to play at and if they can take it as a similar guideline to how this experience is going to be, I think they’ll be okay.”

Despite the pressure riding on the game and the significant obstacles the Cats must overcome, Vitale said NU will persevere, relying on grit and heart.

“These games in November, this is when everybody’s feeling hurt, everyone’s sore and beat up, and it’s just your will to win that’s going to take you to the next level,” Vitale said.

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Twitter: @clairechansen

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