Wisconsin’s rushing attack and passing game aren’t accustomed to dividing the spotlight. A balanced approach, though, may help the Badgers earn a share of the Big Ten title.
The 17th-ranked Badgers, with quarterback Scott Tolzien and receiver Nick Toon giving their offense a new look, have a chance to become the league’s co-champion as they visit Northwestern on Saturday.
Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2) is out of the running for the Big Ten’s BCS bid, earned by Ohio State with its win over Iowa last Saturday, but it can finish with at least a share of the conference championship for the first time since 1999.
The Badgers, Hawkeyes and Penn State can become co-champions with victories Saturday combined with a Buckeyes loss to Michigan. Ohio State earned a trip to the Rose Bowl because it holds the tiebreaker advantage over all of those teams.
Wisconsin beat the Wolverines 45-24 last Saturday for its third straight win, getting an outstanding effort from Tolzien and Toon. Tolzien tied a career high with four touchdown passes—two were to Toon—and ran for a score to earn Big Ten offensive player of the week honors.
Tolzien’s play has been a key factor in the Badgers’ success. He has a 156.4 rating in their eight wins, throwing for 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, compared to no TDs and five INTs in their two defeats. He’s helped add another dimension to the Wisconsin offense after a few seasons of instability in the team’s passing game.
“It’s good just to have another element of our offense to be able to throw the ball and not put it all on the run game,” Tolzien said. “It’s fun to be able to throw it, too.”
Toon has emerged as Tolzien’s top target. The son of former Wisconsin star and NFL All-Pro Al Toon, he leads the Badgers with 42 catches for 633 yards and four TDs.
With his second score against Michigan, the 6-foot-3 Toon displayed some of the skill for which his father was once known, going over the top of a cornerback to grab the ball despite being interfered with.
“Yeah, he’s a playmaker,” Tolzien. “The best thing he has going for him is his confidence.”
Tolzien has the third-best passer rating in the Big Ten (138.7), but Wisconsin is still a run-first team and leads the conference with 208.0 rushing yards per contest.
The Badgers have rushed for more than 200 in three straight games. They’re led by John Clay, who has a Big Ten-best 1,149 yards and 12 TDs on the ground.
“Welcome to Wisconsin football - that’s what we do,” coach Bret Bielema said.
Northwestern (7-4, 4-3) gave up 212 yards rushing to Illinois last Saturday, but Mike Kafka threw for 305 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score to lead the Wildcats to a 21-16 win.
The victory improved Northwestern’s bowl possibilities. The Wildcats, playing their regular-season finale, will appear in consecutive bowls for the first time since the Rose and Citrus following the 1995 and ’96 seasons.
“We’re not satisfied with seven wins,” Kafka said. “We want to go out and get that eighth win.”
Having Kafka healthy should help. He went 23 of 37 without an interception after missing most of the previous two games due to a hamstring injury.
His favorite receiver continues to be Zeke Markshausen, who had six catches for 104 yards and a TD versus the Illini. He’s among the Big Ten leaders with 76 receptions and 737 yards.
Northwestern lost 41-9 at Wisconsin on Oct. 7, 2006, in the last meeting between the teams. The Badgers lead the series 55-32-5 but have lost their only two games in Evanston this decade.