Facing the University of Wisconsin is the kind of game Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald would have loved as a football player.
The former Wildcats linebacker referred to it as "a linebacker's dream" during the Big Ten Conference coaches' teleconference Tuesday.
Northwestern's beleaguered defense could probably benefit from having Fitzgerald in the lineup after allowing 519 rushing yards against Illinois in a 48-27 loss at Wrigley Field in Chicago last Saturday. Running back Mike Leshoure ran for a school-record 330 yards for the Fighting Illini.
Fitzgerald was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008 after a career in which he helped Northwestern to a two-year Big Ten record of 15-1 and appearances in the 1996 Rose Bowl and '97 Citrus Bowl. He is still known to jump into tackling drills to teach his players a proper technique.
So, it had to be galling to Fitzgerald to watch his defense have what the coaches counted as 31 missed tackles last week. That eclipsed the 27 missed tackles in a loss to Penn State on Nov. 6.
It figures the last team Fitzgerald would want to see this week is the Badgers, who have rushed for 695 yards in their past two games. Yet, Fitzgerald vowed the defensive problems would be fixed by the time his team shows up at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. He has an experience from earlier in the season to back up that belief.
"I would never want to discredit a young man I thought had a great game," Fitzgerald said when asked if Leshoure's productivity had more to do with him or the defense. "They played very well. We played very poorly. It's one game and it doesn't make a season.
"What I love about our young men, we didn't play great against Penn State a couple weeks ago and we responded boldly and had a great week of practice and got ready for, in our opinion, a great offensive line and a great running attack in Iowa. We played the way we were capable of.
"It's the same challenge this week. We've got a sour taste in our mouths. Are we going to sit around and feel sorry for (ourselves) or are you going to do something about it?"
Penn State had 268 rushing yards in a 35-21 win over Northwestern. The following week, the Wildcats won 21-17 and limited Iowa to 101 rushing yards.
While the Hawkeyes have a similar approach to offense as the Badgers, nobody is going to confuse the two running games. UW is second in the Big Ten, averaging 239.9 yards per game, while Iowa is ninth, averaging 146.6.
One thing Northwestern could have in its favor this week is defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who held the same job under UW coach Bret Bielema in 2006 and '07. Hankwitz probably knows the UW coaching staff better than anybody else in the Big Ten.
"I don't think it hurts," Fitzgerald said of Hankwitz's background with the Badgers. "At the end of the day, it just comes down to us coaching our guys up, how to fit right, be aggressive, attack, get off blocks and tackling.
"The fun thing when you play teams like the Badgers, "We're going to run it here. If you stop us, good. We're going to run it here again.' For me, it's a linebacker's dream. You know what they're going to do and the challenge is to stop them. No one has really done it very well this year. So, now it's our opportunity."
If senior quarterback Scott Tolzien had his choice, he wouldn't want to know the scores of the other Big Ten games that affect the Badgers' fate prior to their kickoff. Michigan State is at Penn State and Michigan is at Ohio State in two games that should be finished before UW's 2:30 p.m. kickoff against Northwestern.
While those games will ultimately help determine the Badgers' bowl destination, they won't impact the Big Ten title picture other than determining how many teams ultimately get a piece of the championship.
"No, I don't care to know," Tolzien said. "Chances are, if they announce it and the crowd goes crazy, you're going to know what it's about."
If Michigan State loses, the Badgers will know they can earn a Rose Bowl berth with a victory. Or, if Ohio State loses and Michigan State wins, the Badgers will be looking at going to another Bowl Championship Series game, probably the Orange Bowl or Sugar Bowl.
"Ultimately, everyone just has to be focused in on what we can control," Tolzien said. "That's executing our stuff."
Bielema on award list
Bielema is one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. He was named the 2006 Big Ten Coach of the Year and has led the Badgers to 10 regular-season wins for just the third time in school history.