November 26, 2010

Behind enemy lines: NU

MADISON - With an exhilarating season to this point, the Wisconsin football team is one win away from at least a share of the Big Ten title. It also sits in a great shape for a potential trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. Only one thing stands in the way: Northwestern.

In an effort to learn more about the Wildcats, talked with publisher Louie Vaccher. The following are Vaccher's thoughts about Saturday's game.

1.) Obviously the unfortunate loss of Dan Persa has Northwestern working with a young quarterback. Is Evan Watkins capable of leading his team to victory inside of Camp Randall with all things considered?

Vaccher: I guess it's possible, but it's going to be awfully tough. Watkins didn't play that badly on Saturday, and I thought he got better as the game went on and he got more comfortable. I'm sure he'll play much better against Wisconsin than he did against Illinois, and Wisconsin's pass defense is a little less complex than Illinois', which can be a nightmare for a young QB.

To pull out a win, though, he's going to have to be dynamite, and he'll need a lot of help from the running game and his receivers. As you know, Persa was the Northwestern offense, so Watkins has some big shoes to fill.

Incidentally, I think Wisconsin will see true freshman Kain Colter take some snaps at quarterback, as well. The Wildcats burned his redshirt last week and he will probably come in as a change-of-pace QB to run the option, zone-read plays and quarterback draws.

2.) Speaking of Watkins, talk a little bit about Watkins' game. What's his style? Can he run a little bit? What's his arm strength like?

Vaccher: The first thing you'll notice is that Watkins is HUGE. He's 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, so it looks like the Wildcats lined up a defensive end in the shotgun. He's got a big arm and can make every throw in the book. The question is whether he makes the right decision and can be accurate with the football. He missed a couple receivers downfield last Saturday on some plays that I'm sure he wanted to have back.

He's also a better runner than people think. He's not quick or elusive in the pocket, but he's fast enough to tuck the ball and run when he has to. He's a long strider, so he's faster than he looks.

3.) In your eyes, where does Northwestern's rush defense struggle the most? And I would assume this area is of major concern leading into the game with the Badgers.

Vaccher: It's funny, but Northwestern's defense has been on a rollercoaster over the last four weeks. They held Indiana to 17, and then went to Happy Valley and, after grabbing a 21-0 lead, got shredded to the tune of five straight Nittany Lion touchdowns. They followed that up with a brilliant performance against Iowa before letting Illinois steamroll them last Saturday.

It's hard to say where they struggled the most because they were dreadful in every facet against Illinois, which wound up with an absurd total of 519 rushing yards. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said earlier this week that he counted 31 missed tackles in the game. That's a recipe for disaster, and it seemed like most of them came when Mikel Leshoure (330 yards) was carrying the ball.

4.) If you look at this series over the years it seems as though the Wildcats have done a pretty solid job of crushing big time aspirations for Badger teams. Whether it was last year, 2005, 1996 or some other time, it seems NU comes up with a win in very important games. Knowing that, how would you describe the rivalry between UW and NU?

Vaccher:Northwestern fans look forward to the Wisconsin game every year. The two teams have played some classic games in recent years, and you're right -- NU has come out on top in quite a few of them. It seems like the Wildcats are somewhat of a thorn in Wisconsin's side.

Wisconsin has been on an unprecedented run of success in Madison, as is Northwestern right now. It's a far cry from the 1980s, when these two programs would battle it out to avoid the Big Ten basement every year.

5.) It's kind of a broad question, but what does Northwestern absolutely have to do to defeat the Badgers?

Vaccher: Well, the first thing is to contain the running game and try to make Scott Tolzien beat them. If they thought Illinois' running game was tough to defend, wait until they see Wisconsin's smash-mouth attack. The llini held the ball for more than 41 minutes against NU last week. If the Wildcats have a repeat performance of that fiasco, they may not see the ball. I think a big key will be their first-down defense. If NU can limit the Badgers and put them behind the chains, they won't be able to pound the ball as much.

Offensively, Watkins has to get into a rhythm and get that short passing game going. That will open up the running game a little bit and enable him to take some shots down the field.

And it goes without saying that they'll have to win the turnover battle. They'll need all the help they can get.

6.) Give us your prediction. How do you see this one playing out? Don't be afraid to give a score.

Vaccher: Let me preface this by saying I think Northwestern may be the most difficult team to predict in the conference, if not the country. Just when you think you have them figured out, they do something complete unexpected.

I honestly think NU is going to give Wisconsin a much better game than most people -- and certainly the Las Vegas oddsmakers -- are expecting. As you can see by their ups and downs over the last four weeks, the Wildcats seem to be at their best coming off of a bad performance. They were embarrassed on the big stage last week and want to make amends.

I see them keeping it relatively close and playing a solid game, but I don't see them winning, especially with a redshirt freshman at quarterback. I think Wisconsin will win by somewhere around 10 points.

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