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The No. 20 University of Wisconsin football team recovered from a sloppy start to build a 21-0 halftime lead over Northwestern on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Behind freshman tailback Braelon Allen and a strong half from quarterback Graham Mertz, the Badgers are firmly in control of their second-to-last home game of the season.

Badgers postgame: Follow live coverage after Wisconsin cruises past the Northwestern Wildcats
COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Badgers postgame: Follow live coverage after Wisconsin cruises past the Northwestern Wildcats
Chris Doyle | Wisconsin State Journal
Here are three observations from the first half.

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Badgers slow to start
The Badgers, much like the crowd at Camp Randall, didn’t seem into the game for the first series. UW got one first down before punting on the opening possession, then the defense allowed Northwestern to drive 81 yards into the red zone.

Senior cornerback Caesar Williams’ interception in the end zone seemed to snap everyone back into focus, but even Williams made a poor decision returning the ball out of the end zone then taking off his helmet after the play to push UW back to its 5-yard line to start the next drive Allen ran to the left for 37 yards on the first play of the drive to get the offense back in good field position, but the slow start was strange, especially for a defense that has smothered teams early.

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Sanborn and Chenal doing their thing
It’s become expected for Badgers inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal to control games for the Badgers defense, but it doesn’t make it less impressive to watch.

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Sanborn, a senior, had eight tackles and three tackles for loss in the first half. He blew up a jet sweep in the backfield early in the second quarter to derail a drive and almost locked up a sack on a third down, but Northwestern’s Andrew Marty was able to lunge forward to make it back to the line of scrimmage.

Chenal, a junior, has cut down multiple runners at the line of scrimmage and has created pressure with blitzes. He has nine tackles, one for loss.

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Mertz sharp until last throw
Mertz had only three passes hit the ground in the first half. One didn’t count because senior receiver Danny Davis was interfered with, another was a seam route to tight end Jake Ferguson that was just a bit long of the target. The third was a drop by Ferguson.

He was carving up the Wildcats’ secondary to the tune of 170 yards and a touchdown on 12 completions, but his last throw of the half was a bit long intended for Davis in the end zone. Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph picked it off to end the drive.

The Badgers could live with a turnover because they had a three-score lead, and the rest of Mertz’s half was another encouraging step forward for the redshirt sophomore.

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Injury update
Here’s a look at the Badgers’ injury situation at halftime.

Ruled out before the game
UW does not give reasons as to why players are unavailable on its status reports. Outside linebacker Marty Strey was listed as out for the season after a right leg injury and tight end Cam Large is also out for the season with a right leg issue.

WR A.J. Abbott

OLB Spencer Lytle

ILB Mike Maskalunas

CB Semar Melvin

TE Hayden Rucci

Wisconsin vs. Northwestern football: 3 keys to victory, why a retirement could help the Badgers and predictions
WHO HAS THE EDGE
Wisconsin Rutgers Football
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass against Rutgers during their game last week in Piscataway, N.J. (Noah K. Murray, Associated Press)

When the Badgers have the ball
All eyes will be on the UW backfield after junior Chez Mellusi’s season-ending injury left an already-thin position without one of its most reliable players. Freshman Braelon Allen likely will be asked to carry more of the load, but it’s the non-Allen carries that could get interesting. Redshirt junior Brady Schipper has been the third back, but redshirt sophomore Julius Davis and freshman Jackson Acker got work in mop-up duty against Rutgers.

The retirement of Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz after last season has been most apparent in the Wildcats’ rushing defense — they’re last in the Big Ten and one of the worst in all of the FBS, allowing 224.6 yards per game. Nebraska (427), Michigan State (326), and Minnesota (308) gained more than 300 yards rushing against Northwestern, and Michigan (294) narrowly missed that mark.

Badgers redshirt quarterback Graham Mertz had his best game of the season against Rutgers, bouncing back from a first-drive interception to tie his season high with 240 yards and throw a season-best three touchdowns. The three touchdowns went to different receivers, and Mertz showed good touch on a pair of throws over the middle of the field for first downs.

That interception was Mertz’s first since the Illinois game, and protecting the ball again will be important against Northwestern. The players have changed from the defense that forced Mertz into five turnovers a season ago and the Wildcats aren’t forcing turnovers at a high rate (1.3 per game), but not ceding momentum with a giveaway has been helpful for the Badgers’ offense over the past month.

Edge: Wisconsin

Iowa Northwestern Football
Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty looks to throw against Iowa during their game last week in Evanston, Ill. (Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press)

When Northwestern has the ball
The Wildcats have struggled mightily to score points this season. Their per-game yardage total is 10th in the Big Ten (361), but the red zone has been a consistent issue. Northwestern has 19 red-zone scores on 27 attempts, but only 14 of those are touchdowns.

Quarterback Andrew Marty has taken the lead role under center, but Ryan Hilinski and Hunter Johnson have spent time as the signal-caller this season. Accuracy hasn’t been any of the QBs’ strong suits, with Northwestern completing 57.1% of its passes.

Sophomore Evan Hull is getting the bulk of the work at running back, and his 791 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and five rushing touchdowns lead the team. Stephon Robinson Jr. (35 catches, 489 yards, two touchdowns) and Malik Washington (34-426-2) are the names to watch at receiver, and Hull (22-205-2) has proven to be a capable weapon on routes from the backfield.

An interesting matchup will be the Badgers’ outside linebackers Noah Burks and Nick Herbig against Northwestern sophomore tackle Peter Skoronski. The left tackle has allowed 17 pressures (1.8 per game) this season, and he only allowed one against Burks and Herbig last season.

UW’s FBS-best rushing defense should be able to contain Hull and make Marty throw to beat it, and there’s a good chance the Badgers’ run of turnover creation continues against a team that has six turnovers in its last three games, all losses.

Edge: Wisconsin

Special teams
The Badgers have secured a takeaway on special teams the past two weeks, recovering a muffed punt against Iowa then forcing and recovering a fumble on kickoff coverage last week at Rutgers.

Northwestern has had trouble in the kicking game this season — kicker Charlie Kuhbander is 6 for 11 overall and 2 of 6 on field goals of more than 30 yards. UW senior Collin Larsh had his first missed field goal in five weeks against Rutgers, but he did make a 28-yard try in the first half.

Badgers punter Andy Vujnovich will have to be careful where he places his kicks this weekend. Northwestern has averaged 17.1 yards per punt return this season.

Edge: Slightly Wisconsin

Trends
UW is 3-4 against Northwestern in their past seven meetings, but the last home loss came in 2015. The Badgers are on a five-game win streak, marking the fourth season in which coach Paul Chryst has led a streak of at least five wins since becoming the program’s coach. Chryst’s Badgers teams are 15-4 in November and have gone 4-0 in November three times in his first six seasons.

The Wildcats are 0-3 on the road this season, while UW is 3-2 at Camp Randall. Northwestern is a 24-point underdog and is 3-6 against the spread this season.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the winningest coach in program history and is one of only two coaches to stay with the Wildcats for 10 or more years.

THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
Slowing The Run Football
Wisconsin’s linebackers Leo Chenal and Nick Herbig and safety Scott Nelson wrap up Iowa running back Tyler Goodson during their game earlier this season at Camp Randall Stadium. (Andy Manis, Associated Press)

1. Keep building passing attack: Graham Mertz is looking about as comfortable as he has in the pocket for the Badgers over the past three weeks. He’s been decisive in his decision-making, and he’s paying off good protection and open receivers with solid pay. UW should keep up that against Northwestern, especially with play-action passes early in the game. Northwestern is going to have to commit extra bodies to stopping the run, and Mertz should have one-on-one opportunities early and often.

2. Get an early lead: One through line during the Badgers’ five-game win streak has been getting leads in the first half. The only game in the streak that the Badgers lost that first-half lead was at Purdue, but UW got a late field goal to tie the game before halftime. Leads allow coordinator Jim Leonhard to unleash the front seven in the pass rush, and Northwestern’s middle-of-the-pack offense — eighth in the Big Ten in rushing and passing — can’t operate one-dimensionally if the score forces it to throw more.

3. Dominate the interior: Leonhard credited the work of nose tackle Keeanu Benton and the entire defensive line for how effective the unit has been this season. He said by sharpening their angles and allowing them to be more downhill, it’s helped create more disruption in the backfield. Northwestern’s interior line isn’t likely to be able to handle Benton or ends Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens. The Wildcats allow more than five tackles for loss per game, and the Badgers are tied for 17th in the FBS with 6.8 TFLs per game.

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