Football: Northwestern’s path to the Big Ten West title goes through Wisconsin


Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Northwestern and Wisconsin lines face off during last season’s game in Madison. The Badgers won 33-24 en route to another Big Ten West division title.

Joseph Wilkinson, Reporter


Before the season, coach Pat Fitzgerald laid out his expectations.

“We don’t hide from the goals that we have,” Fitzgerald said, “which are to win the Big Ten West, to win the Big Ten Championship and then go win our bowl game.”

If Northwestern (4-3, 4-1 Big Ten) wants to accomplish those first two goals in 2018, it will almost certainly have to defeat No. 20 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) at Ryan Field on Saturday.

The Wildcats currently sit atop the Big Ten West division, but it’s Paul Chryst’s Badgers who have won it three times since conference realignment four years ago and are the favorites to capture the division again, according to ESPN’s FPI metric.

“Paul and his staff do a phenomenal job, and they’re the reason why they’ve been so consistent in winning the Big Ten West,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “Number one it starts with their offensive line. You want me to read them all off, they’re dudes, they’re outstanding.”

NU hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2000, when it split the title with Michigan and Purdue, and the Cats have yet to snag a Big Ten divisional title since the conference split before the 2011 season.

Whether the teams simply weren’t very good (2011, 2013, 2014), dropped early games that left them behind from the start (2015, 2017) or came up short in a crucial game on the road at Ohio State (2016), something has always tripped up Fitzgerald’s squads.

NU’s best shot at a division title came in 2012, when the Cats led Nebraska 28-16 in the fourth quarter at Ryan Field, with a chance to take control of the Big Ten Legends division. However, a late collapse and last-minute missed field goal gave the Cornhuskers the victory, and a road overtime loss to Michigan later in the season shuffled an upstart NU team off the national stage and into third place in the division.

“You get into divisional play, I think you don’t surprise anybody. It really comes back to execution,” Fitzgerald said this week. “Most people go out and do what they do, it just comes down to who does it better.”

Wisconsin’s offense runs through superstar running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor leads the country with 158.4 rushing yards per game and averages over six yards per carry.

He’s the driving force behind an offense that ranks third in Offensive S&P+ and first in Rushing S&P+, advanced metrics that attempt to holistically measure an offense’s performance.

“He can stop on a dime. He can run you over. He can juke. He can hurdle,” sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “He’s the best back in college football right now, and he’s been showing it on tape. He’s very dynamic, very athletic, very versatile, and we need to stop him.”

Fisher and the Cats’ defense have already faced three top-20 (via Rushing S&P+) rushing offenses this season. Nebraska rode Devine Ozigbo and his more than seven yards per carry to a near upset at Ryan Field, and Purdue’s Rondale Moore and D.J. Knox piled up 156 yards on nine carries.

Michigan, on the other hand, struggled to run the ball as star back Karan Higdon managed less than four yards per carry. If the Cats can do the same to Taylor and the Badgers, they’ll likely have won a crucial battle in the quest for the Big Ten West.

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