Northwestern-Wisconsin: Avoiding Chris Borland, and three questions for the Northwestern offense

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin has one defensive guy you should be worried about. Which is good because it means the other 10 provide opportunities for Northwestern to put up points.

It's Friday! In addition to getting down on Friday, it's obligatory we talk Northwestern-Wisconsin football.

It's rather unfortunate: the same exact things which plagued my mind last week (man, this is gonna be a tough game, Northwestern might win, but the odds are against them, man it would be really important for Northwestern to win this game, it's gonna be a close, tight, shootout that Northwestern is probably going to lose) are plaguing my mind this week. That's bad because Northwestern lost last week.

But I think it's rather possible that Northwestern win, because I feel like the Wildcats' strengths on offense play right into Wisconsin's weaknesses. (As I'll say later, I also feel like Wisconsin's strengths on offense play into Northwestern's weaknesses.)

Here's three questions about how Northwestern operates when they have the ball that, if answered correctly, could lead to a W.

Can T-Seems keep slangin' against a weak Wisconsin pass D?

Don't be fooled by the numbers that give Wisconsin the No. 13 passing defense in the country: that's just because of shutouts against Tennessee Tech and UMass. The Badgers were helpless to stop the Taylor Kelly-Jaelen Strong combination against Arizona State, and Braxton Miller effortlessly threw for four touchdowns on only 25 passing attempts while the Wisconsin secondary committed several big penalties.

When you look at the personnel, it's not surprising they've struggled: cornerback Peniel Jean is in his first year starting after an injury last year, and Sojourn Shelton is a true freshman. The situation at safety has forced quarterback Tanner McEvoy into a backup role.

(Seriously, let's take a more in-depth look at the struggles Wisconsin's young cornerbacks and safeties had. Whoopsies!)

I'm going to have some qualms with Trevor Siemian later, but I think we can generally agree that he has looked good thus far. Great, actually. He's still averaging over 10 yards an attempt five weeks into the season. He's shown an incredible connection with deep ball savant Tony Jones, and last week, the budding HS hookup with Rashad Lawrence gave the possession receiver eight catches for 149 yards. The arm strength has always been there, but this year the accuracy, consistency, and -- with a few exceptions -- the decision-making have been as well.

That should be bad news for a Wisconsin secondary that lacks depth and skill. If Trevor can shine, Northwestern can put itself in the driver's seat again.

Can Venric and Kain stay away from Chris Borland?

There's one name you absolutely need to know when dealing with Wisconsin's defense: middle linebacker Chris Borland. You don't hear him a ton with regards to the draft, since he's a 5'11 linebacker, but he's made himself an absolute problem out of one of the two inside linebacker spots in Wisconsin's 3-4 defense. This is one of those guys whose name could be called on a tackle from right sideline to left sideline, regardless of the play design. His sophomore year he had a preposterous 19 tackles for loss, unheard of for a middle linebacker. The Badgers don't seem to ask Borland to foray behind the line of scrimmage as much anymore now in their new defensive scheme -- he's got two TFL's thus far through five games -- he still makes oodles and oodles of tackles.

Northwestern's option is meant to eliminate guys like this: force them to account for either Venric Mark or Kain Colter, each of which can go real fast towards either boundary on any play. But I could still see a linebacker with the playmaking ability and instincts of Borland using his nose for the ball to Northwestern's detriment and turning Northwestern's seven-yard gains in the run game into three-yard gains.

There were points in the first half of Saturday night's game where I was thrilled with Venric Mark's return, as it seemed he and Colter were absolutely gashing Ohio State down the field. But there were an awful lot of plays for little to no play, and he was barely used at all after halftime (one rush for two yards) and he ended up with just 60 yards on 3.5 per carry.

This has been harped on, but it's a little bit bewildering why Northwestern so violently eschewed Mark and Colter, who was 12-for-12 passing, for Trevor Siemian in the second half. We just praised Siemian, but he's a great guy for big plays and quick drives. He ended up having a nice big late play, the completion to Rashad Lawrence. But as Northwestern was trying to hold a lead, they could have used more consistent run gains and less of things a passing-centric QB like Siemian brings: incompletions that stop the clock, sacks that put Northwestern in need of even lower percentage pass plays, and of course, a costly interception, which he threw.

The way Northwestern's usage of Colter and Mark tapered off towards the end of the game made me wonder whether or not he's truly fully *back* and stuff. Northwestern needs him to be. The other two running backs, Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy, got 26 yards on eight carries. If these guys managed to find holes in the front, Borland will fill it.

The key to moving the ball consistently will be speedy horizontal running, which is hard with Borland bearing down on plays from the start. Kain and Venric have to be up to the task.

Can Northwestern's spread make Wisconsin uncomfortable instead of vice-versa?

When B5Q analyzed the team's defense thus far, one of the top things they mentioned -- besides, of course, Borland -- was Dave Aranda's creativeness in finding ways to bring the fourth rusher out of the 3-4 defense. It makes sense when you think about it: regular defensive fronts have four down linemen, the 3-4 has three down linemen and two linebackers. 3-4 defenses don't typically rush just the three linemen, but rather some combination of either or both the linebackers playing as edge rushers. They get to pick and choose which additional players are coming, something that can confuse offensive lines, especially an inexperienced one like Northwestern. It's not that they have any hyper-talented rushers Northwestern needs to be aware of, its the fact that they can send a variety of guys from different directions.

As it so happens, Northwestern has struggled giving up sacks. It's the thing Bill Connelly pointed out as Northwestern's flaw last week.

Northwestern can take the initiative and keep Wisconsin off-balance by fully utilizing the depth of its receiving corps. With the Joneses, Rashad Lawrence, Dan Vitale, and, when Northwestern feels like it, Kain Colter split out wide, NU can put Wisconsin linebackers in situations where there are too many capable receiving threats to cover. And though we've hyped up Siemian a lot for his ability to kill passing defenses, Colter went 12-for-12 last week, and that's the sort of efficiency that can make a team act screwy.

That'll force them to either walk linebackers out and cover instead of remaining blitzing options, or forcing them to resort to playing a nickelback. Considering the guys they're already playing in their secondary, that's ideal.

Some teams will have the personnel in the defensive backfield to deal with Northwestern's passing without screwing up their defensive gameplan. Wisconsin won't. If Northwestern distributes across the field well, both QB's will make life easier for themselves, and in turn take eyes out of the backfield and make life for Venric Mark easier.

The less blitzing options Wisconsin has, the weaker Wisconsin will be. It's gonna be a shootout, and the key to shootouts is shooting. Northwestern can shoot by keeping Wisconsin's defense from getting comfy.

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