Football: Northwestern’s front seven faces tough test against Wisconsin

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Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Northwestern’s defensive front lines up. The Wildcats will take on Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line Saturday.

Max Schuman, Gameday Editor


Football


In its Big Ten opener Saturday against Wisconsin, Northwestern’s defense knows pretty much what it’s going to get.

“Wisconsin is known for having those gigantic offensive linemen,” senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster said. “They’re going to bring the run game, and we’re going to try to stuff the run.”

Knowing what’s coming is different than stopping it, something the No. 10 Badgers (3-0) showed their nonconference opponents the hard way. Wisconsin racked up more than 275 yards per game on the ground in its first three games, the 10th best mark in the country so far.

That rushing attack has been led by running back Jonathan Taylor, who is currently averaging more than eight yards per carry and has flashed big-play potential as a true freshman. With the Badgers’ highly touted offensive line — what else is new? — paving the way for the young, explosive back, the Wildcats’ run defense faces perhaps its toughest test of the year Saturday.

NU (2-1) has dealt with some glitches against the run so far this season as inexperienced players have taken on important roles in the front seven. The Cats gave up 142 rushing yards to Nevada in their season opener, and followed that up by ceding 233 yards on the ground to Duke.

Those teams posed different problems schematically than Wisconsin. Coach Pat Fitzgerald noted in a news conference Monday that the two spread offenses made heavy use of run-pass option plays to keep NU’s defense on its heels. By contrast, the Badgers run a classic pro-style offense, with size and talent on the offensive front unlike anything the Cats saw in nonconference play.

“Their offensive line is very good, very big, very athletic, and you’ll see that in Big Ten,” redshirt freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “You’re going to see a lot more athletic, bigger guys. The Big Ten, that’s what they’re known for.”

To stymie the run attack, NU will look to defensive linemen like Lancaster, who leads his position group in tackles for loss, and linebackers like Fisher, who leads the team in tackles, to fight through Wisconsin’s blockers.

But if the Cats can’t get the job done with just seven men in the box, they might be forced to bring senior safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro closer to the line. That could leave the team exposed through the air, and in his second season as a starter, Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook appears able to take advantage, with a 70 percent completion rate and eight passing touchdowns so far.

With an improved Hornibrook and targets like tight end Troy Fumagalli, the Badgers have weapons to make NU pay for selling out against the run.

“That’s where (Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst), I think, separates himself,” Fitzgerald said. “He just does a terrific job of not only formationally putting pressure on you, schematically putting pressure on you, but playing to his players’ strengths.”

Those strengths have the Badgers’ offense rolling this season, and now the Cats’ front seven gets a shot at slowing a divisional rival down. Limiting Wisconsin on the ground won’t be easy, but it would go a long way to making an upset in Madison possible.

“Physicality is the biggest thing we’ve got to focus on,” Lancaster said. “They’re going to bring it to us, and we’re going to respond.”

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