No. 20 Wisconsin brings banged-up secondary to Northwestern

Past history suggests Wisconsin’s defense should be in store for a busy afternoon on Saturday in Evanston, Ill.

The No. 20 Badgers face off against Northwestern in a key Big Ten Conference West Division battle. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) can take a major step toward securing the West crown with a road win over the upstart Wildcats (4-3, 4-1).

Banged up secondary

With four players in the secondary listed as questionable, including safety D’Cota Dixon, the Badgers will be in store for a tough matchup against Wildcats senior quarterback Clayton Thorson.

“Obviously, he’s got a very strong arm,” Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly said of Thorson. “Probably one of the strongest ones we play. He’s also a big dude. Sometimes you forget about how big he is. He can make things happen for his offense. He’s a great game manager, which we haven’t really seen a lot of this year, and obviously he’s been in this system for four years now.”

Thorson, a four-year starter, possesses a wealth of big-game experience. In previous battles against Wisconsin, Thorson’s right arm has gotten a workout. Last season, in a 33-24 loss at Madison, Thorson attempted 45 passes. In 2016, Thorson threw 52 passes in a defeat in Evanston.

“Certainly there were games where they put it in his hands,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “He’s a really good quarterback, and competitive. I think that’s their team. … He’s played a lot of football, and I think he has probably seen about everything you try to throw his way.”

Thorson shouldering the load

Due to injuries at running back, Thorson has been forced to shoulder a bigger portion of the offense this season. He was 41 of 64 for 455 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in an overtime win against Nebraska on Oct. 13. Thorson has completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,905 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Thorson willed the Wildcats to the win over the Cornhuskers with his sterling performance.

“Man, is he a good player. Man, has he won a lot of games for us,” Fitzgerald said. “Sometimes you don’t have your ‘A’ game, and you’ve got to find a way to will us to win, and he did that. I don’t think he flinched, and I think he owned it. And I think he’ll do something about it. Because, man, he played flippin’ ridiculous the week before, huh?”

Wisconsin sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor enters the division showdown averaging a nation-best 158 rushing yards per game. Led by sack specialist Joe Gaziano, the Wildcats will focus on becoming the first team to keep Taylor under 100 yards this season.

“I think Joe is very talented,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a guy that I think has got great football instinct, great functional strength. Has a great knack off the edge. We’ll do multiple things with him because of his football IQ.”

–Field Level Media