The Big Ten moves full throttle into conference action this weekend with the game of the week clearly Northwestern’s trip to Wisconsin.
Both teams were idle last weekend, so they’ve had an extra week of preparation before what will be their first conference game of the season.
“I think it gives coaches a little bit of time, but I think the primary focus of the bye week has got to be your team and your players,” said Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst. “Really, all that matters is that we’re playing Northwestern. Guys know the teams that we are playing in the Big Ten; they’re all good football teams.”
Both the Badgers and Wildcats had hoped to be unbeaten before squaring off in this West Division game.
Ninth-ranked Wisconsin (3-0) has done its’ part, sending a message that the Badgers are again one of the Big Ten’s best by outscoring their first three opponents 130-30. The Badgers also have the nation’s fourth best scoring defense and have not allowed any points in the second half of games this season.
Alas, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad (2-1) saw its plans for early season perfection ruined by a 41-17 loss at Duke two weeks ago. For that reason, Fitzgerald is concerned whether his players will be prepared to handle the trip to Madison, Wisc., which will expose the Wildcats to a much tougher road environment.
Wisconsin averages crowds of nearly 78,000 at Camp Randall Stadium The Sept. 9 loss in Durham, N.C. was played in front of just 20,241 fans.
“Our last road game was obviously not a very good performance by us, at all,” Fitzgerald said. “How do we handle (the trip to Wisconsin)? How do we travel? Obviously, we’re going to one of the great cathedrals of college football. What comes along with that?”
The two teams have split the last 10 games in the series. Other than three dominant wins by the Badgers (2006, 2010 and 2013), the games have been decided by no more than two touchdowns. In fact, the Wildcats’ average margin of victory in their five wins during that stretch is 5.2 points.
Northwestern has won two of the last three meetings, including a 13-7 win during its last trip to Camp Randal in 2015.
Wisconsin sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency, completing 70 percent of his passes for 701 yards eight touchdowns with just one interception. Meanwhile, freshman Jonathan Taylor leads the conference with 146 rushing yards per game with five touchdowns.
Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has completed 63 percent of his passes for 842 yards and four touchdowns but has been intercepted three times. Justin Jackson has rushed for 248 yards on just 55 carries and has added 87 receiving yards. He’s scored four TDs.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Nebraska at Illinois, Friday 7 p.m. CT, FSI
Maryland at Minnesota, Saturday 11 a.m., FSI
Northwestern at Wisconsin, Saturday 11 a.m., ABC
Indiana at Penn State, Saturday 2:30 p.m., BTN
Iowa at Michigan State, Saturday 3 p.m. FOX
- Penn State (4-0, 1-0): Last Week – W, at Iowa, 21-19. The Impact – Juwan Johnson snagged 7-yard pass on final play to keep Nittany Lions unbeaten. Saquan Barkley became a Heisman frontrunner with 211 yards rushing and 94 receiving.
- Wisconsin (3-0, 0-0):Last Week – Idle. The Impact – Freshman Jonathan Taylor leads Big Ten and is fifth in nation with 146 rushing yards per game. He also leads conference with five touchdowns.
- Michigan (4-0, 1-0):Last Week – W, at Purdue, 28-10. The Impact – Wolverines had starting quarterback Wilton Speight knocked out of game due to questionable hit, which raised ire of Jim Harbaugh about officiating and Ross-Ade Stadium’s visiting team facilities since QB had to be transported to off-campus health facility.
- Ohio State (3-1, 1-0):Last Week – W. UNLV, 54-21. The Impact – J.T. Barrett answered critics with five TD passes to different receivers and is now 200 yards from becoming Buckeyes’ all-time leading passer.
- Minnesota (3-0, 0-0): Last Week – Idle. The Impact – Gophers have nation’s top overall defense, allowing just 8.0 points and 59 rushing yards and 239 total yards per game. Minnesota and Wisconsin are only teams to pitch shutouts in second halves this season.
6. Iowa (3-1, 0-1): Last Week – L, Penn State, 21-19. The Impact – LB Josey Jewell made 16 tackles against No. 4 Penn State, but Hawkeyes came up one play short of pulling off big upset.
7. Purdue (2-2, 0-1):Last Week – L, Michigan, 28-10. The Impact – Boilermakers led Michigan 10-7 at halftime, then only gained 10 total yards in second half and finished 0 for 12 on third-down conversions. And unfortunately, it happened in front of Purdue’s first sellout crowd since 2008. Ouch!
8. Michigan State (2-1, 0-0):Last Week – L, Notre Dame, 35-10. The Impact – Spartans never led against Irish, which is first time in five seasons that has happened under Mark Dantonio. They’ve also given up four return TDs, including two on fumbles, in three games.
9. Indiana (2-1, 0-1):Last Week – W, Georgia Southern, 52-17. The Impact – Hoosiers found reliable rusher with freshman Morgan Ellison (186 on 25 carries, 2 TDs). Not bad for player who wasn’t highly recruited because he broke each of his legs in high school.
10. Maryland (2-1, 0-0):Last Week – L, UCF, 38-10. Impact – Terps have now lost two starting QBs – sophomore Tyrell Pigrome in opener and freshman Yasim Hill last week. It’s the third straight year and fourth time in six seasons that Maryland will start at least three signal callers in a season.
11. Northwestern (2-1, 0-1): Last Week – Idle. The Impact – Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator has now been in same job with Wildcats for 10 years. Wildcats are 4-5 in series, winning two of last three games, with him in job.
12. Illinois (2-1, 0-0): Last Week – Idle. The Impact – Illini started 10 freshmen in loss at USF and has played 18 overall so far as Lovie Smith’s youth movement continues. With Nebraska coming to town Friday, can Illini get a confidence-boosting win?
13. Nebraska (2-2, 1-0):Last Week – W, Rutgers, 27-17. The Impact – QB Tanner Lee tossed third pick-6 in two games but this time Huskers rallied to win their conference opener against struggling Rutgers.
14. Rutgers (1-3, 0-1):Last Week – L, at Nebraska, 27-17. The Impact – Scarlet Knights are doomed to a not-so-sweet 16 straight losses in Big Ten with Ohio State coming to town Saturday.
(All times Central; projected winners in bold caps)
NEBRASKA at Illinois, Friday 7 p.m. CT, FSI
Maryland at MINNESOTA, Saturday 11 a.m., FSI
Northwestern at WISCONSIN, Saturday 11 a.m., ABC
Indiana at PENN STATE, Saturday 2:30 p.m., BTN
IOWA at Michigan State, Saturday 3 p.m. FOX
OHIO STATE at Rutgers, Saturday 6:30 p.m., BTN
Last Week: 6-1
Note: Each week during the college football season, I’ll be updating how things are unfolding in the Big Ten by Wednesday, the SEC by Thursday and ACC by Friday. I covered teams in each of the conferences during my 41 years as a sports journalist.