EVANSTON – Very quickly, this is becoming a game to watching when it comes to opponents in the Big Ten West division.
Two years ago, Northwestern put themselves into first place thanks to a win at home against favored Wisconsin. They’ll hold onto it the rest of the way to win the school’s first division championship.
Now a similar situation is brewing in 2020, with the Wildcats and the Badgers each being ranked along with sporting unblemished records as they meet at Ryan Field at 2:30 PM on Saturday. With only four games left in the season for each team, the winning team having the inside track towards a berth in the 2020 Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis.
What makes this game unique is how each team has taken different ways to get here. Led more by a passing attack from new quarterback Graham Mertz, Wisconsin has used a strong passing attack in wins over Illinois and Michigan.
Mertz has seven touchdowns without an interception and 375 yards as the Badgers have outscored their first two opponents 94-18. The performances coming after the team had to cancel a pair of contests due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Meanwhile, Northwestern has been making the plays late to seal a number of close wins early this season. After a blowout of Maryland to start the season, the Wildcats beat Iowa by one, Nebraska by eight, and then Purdue by seven last weekend.
That actually instills confidence in receiver Riley Lees, who believes it shows the true potential of the Wildcats as they start the second half of the season.
“Last game we didn’t run the ball very well but we threw the ball well,” said the receiver. “Once we put both things together, I think we’ll get to our full potential and the fact that we’re not there right now and we’re 4-0 right now, is great for us and a great confidence booster for us.”
ILLINOIS: WHO WILL BE THE QB?
CHAMPAIGN – As usual, Lovie Smith wasn’t going to tip his hand as to who might be the team’s quarterback for Saturday’s game against Nebraska in Lincoln.
It could be beginning of season starter Brandon Peters, who has missed the last three games after a positive COVID-19 test. But sophomore Isaiah Williams made his case to keep the job in the win over Rutgers last Saturday, rushing for a quarterback school record 192 yards.
There’s a compelling argument for both as the Illini face the Huskers in hope of a second-straight victory as they try to right their season after an 0-3 start where four different signal callers have started games.
Whether Peters or Williams starts, most of their teammates on offense didn’t seem too phased when asked about it this week, including the man snapping the ball to them.
“The same things goes through my mind. I try not to worry about who’s behind me. I worry about what I have to do, what us five on the offensive line have to do,” said center Doug Kramer, who returned to the lineup with Williams last week after being out two weeks due to contact tracing. “There’s not much different who’s back there. We have confidence in both those guys.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: NOT THE BEST FIRST HALF
DEKALB – There isn’t much time for any team in the Mid-American Conference to turn things around if they go south in the 2020 season. Northern Illinois is finding out the hard way over the past three weeks.
The first half of the Huskies season is complete and they’ve yet to get a win, dropping their third-straight game on Wednesday night to Ball State 31-25.
Thomas Hammock’s team was once against doomed by a bad second half straight – surrendering a third and early fourth quarter touchdown that made the difference. Northern Illinois rallied to get within six in the final minute, but the Cardinals recovered the onside kick to seal the win.
Northern Illinois gets a little more time to get things right before their second half moves to Saturdays the rest of the year. The Huskies travel to Western Michigan to face the Broncos at 11 AM on November 28th.