A Nebraska versus Wisconsin rematch. A rematch anticipated since the Cornhuskers and the Badgers played in their Big Ten opener way back on Sept. 29th. This may be a rematch, but the game is definitely not a rerun.
Wisconsin capitalized on Big Red mistakes to go up 27-10 in the first round with Nebraska, until the Huskers ripped off 20 unanswered points as they mounted the second-largest comeback victory in school history.
A lot has happened since the last meeting between these two teams. And each team has changed as the year went on.
Following the Wisconsin game, Nebraska came out strong in the first quarter with Ohio State before the wheels totally came off and the Buckeyes laid down 63 points. Coach Bo Pelini said after the game that Nebraska needed to win out the remaining games on the schedule to get to the Big Ten Championship. People seemed to snicker at the statement. Pelini was criticized by media and fans, and people started speculating on replacements for him.
Nebraska did just what Pelini said, winning six in a row in varying fashions. No running back Rex Burkhead. Overcoming three more double-digit deficits. Overcoming mistakes. Overcoming hurricane-force winds at Iowa. Coming together as a team instead of giving up when the opposition seemed insurmountable. Nebraska comes into the title game 10-2 with losses to undefeated Ohio State and PAC 12 South champ UCLA.
Wisconsin took a different path. Following the defeat at Nebraska, the Badgers had a cakewalk of Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. Record-breaking, All-American running back Montee Ball got healthier as the year went on, yet Wisconsin ended three of its last four games in overtime losses. The lone bright spot during that stretch was a 62-14 victory over Indiana to clinch a Big Ten Championship berth. A berth taken by the third-best team in the Leaders Division due to Ohio State and Penn State being on probation and unable to participate in postseason play. Wisconsin enters the title game 7-5 with one win over a team with a winning record, Utah State.
This history lesson is just how the teams got here. Things still need to be played out on the field. So here’s the breakdown.
Quarterback: Michigan State knocked Joel Stave out for the year. Stave hurt Nebraska in the first half of the opener before the Huskers dropped off from run defense to respect the pass a little more. Stave had tremendous pocket presence and just enough speed to elude rushers. But he’s not playing. Backup transfer Danny O’Brien has been a huge disappointment this season, so coach Bret Bielema decided to go with fifth-year senior Curt Phillips. Phillips has had three ACL surgeries on the same knee and hadn’t played much since 2009. He’s managed the games he’s played in, but his passing numbers have been less than impressive. Of course, he hasn’t been asked to do a whole lot other than hand off. Of course, maybe Wisconsin wins those close OT games with less conservative QB play.
Running Back: As previously stated, Ball was still affected by an injury suffered early in the year the last time these teams met. He’s definitely back to full speed, rushing for nearly 200 yards against both Indiana and Ohio State. The Badgers’ offensive philosophy hasn’t changed much: Road grade the defense and run, run, run. What’s new is that Ball isn’t the only back getting carries. After the coordinator change, Wisconsin seemingly realized that they had James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, still on the team. Speedy White has a skill set similar to Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. A great change of pace from Ball, White can – and has – hit a home run from anywhere on the field. Backup Melvin Gordon, a bit larger than White, has also seen spot duty against teams that can’t find an answer for the run game.
Tight End: Another weapon that didn’t see any productivity in Lincoln is Jacob Pedersen. He came on with big games later in the year with 65 yards and a TD against Michigan State and 66 yards and a TD against Ohio State, earning All-Big Ten First Team honors.
Uniforms: No alternates this time around for the teams with nearly identical uniforms. Wisconsin will be in home jerseys in this one. Just like a Red-White Game. This is where Nebraska not having a spring game this season could really hurt them.
Wisconsin has been getting healthy at just the right time this week. Star linebacker Chris Borland has been hampered by a hamstring injury and may be slowed a bit on Saturday. No. 1 receiver Jared Abberderis has been suffering from a concussion. And starting right tackle Rob Havenstein has been battling a knee injury. All players have been cleared to play, but may not be 100 percent.
Keys To The Game
The Passing Game: Wisconsin needs to keep the Blackshirts honest. Pelini’s defense will allow some short and intermediate plays if it means putting a stranglehold on your big-play capability. Big plays through the air are going to be key. At the same time, interceptions would absolutely kill the Badgers. Phillips to Abberderis will be the connection to watch for. Pedersen could also come up huge on third downs. Converting third and longs will help keep the powerful Nebraska offense off the field. Don’t let Nebraska dictate when the Badgers pass. Avoid Eric Martin.
Fresh Legs: Dig deep into that stable of running backs and offensive linemen. Wear out Nebraska’s depleted front four. Get linemen to the second level and run with anyone who can suit up and hold a ball. Don’t settle for field goals in the red zone.
Mistakes: Nebraska will make mistakes, capitalize on them. Get points off of turnovers. Avoid drive-extending/drive-killing penalties.
Take An Early Lead: Nebraska will score. Wisconsin already got burned in the first game against the Big Red. Nebraska will also try to take an early lead to neutralize the running game. If Wisconsin goes down by three scores this one may be over. Running is the Badgers’ strength and running out the clock for your opponent isn’t a great idea.
The Trenches: Nebraska has key injuries at the heart of its offensive and defensive lines. Wisconsin is known for its linemen. The Badgers may be able to expose those areas to break long runs on offense, and stop Nebraska’s plays in the backfield before they start on defense.
Running Back: Burkhead and Abdullah were both in the game against Wisconsin back in September, so that’s not new. What is new is a confidence that Abdullah can carry the load against any team in the Big Ten. This means that the Badgers have to prepare for both RBs as if that guy will be the starter. Throw in a healthy Braylon Heard as a change of pace, and Imani Cross as the short-yardage pounder in lieu of the fullback. That’s a lot to prepare for, and that’s just one position. Not to mention that fullback Mike Marrow may be back from injury and Marrow seemed to carry the rock better than the other options at FB.
Receiver: Nebraska really spread the ball around on Wisconsin in round one. The biggest difference between now and then would be the emergence of Jamal Turner as a clutch receiver. Somewhere along the line it seems like a switch flipped for Turner and he has been much improved in running routes and catching the ball. Tim Marlowe has been dealing with a shoulder injury all season and may also add to the wideouts Wisconsin has to contend with.
Defensive Line: Cameron Meredith has been playing more tackle than end as of late. Martin has evolved into a dynamite defensive end.
Linebacker: Nebraska has finally settled on a rotation of Will Compton, Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley that seems to be working. Tackling has much improved as the year has progressed. Redshirt freshman David Santos has also seen some spot duty. Santos flies around and has a nose for blowing up lead blocks; he could have a nice performance against the Wisconsin run game if he sees the field.
Secondary: Ciante Evans has become a solid nickelback. Cornerback by committee is the norm and has been working for the Blackshirts. Great coverage has been bearing fruit in the form of interceptions as the season progressed.
Playing Indoors: Teams play faster indoors. While this will help Wisconsin’s RBs, Nebraska has a lot more weapons and a better capability to get the ball to them.
Where Wisconsin is getting healthy, Nebraska has had some injuries at the core of its lines. Anchor defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler has suffered a knee injury and will not play the remainder of the year. Center Justin Jackson has an injured ankle and will not play. Nebraska has yet to settle on a replacement between Mark Pelini and Cole Pensick. Pelini is a bit undersized but is very intelligent; he had offers to play at Ivy League schools. Pelini came in on short notice for the majority of the Iowa game. Pensick has been seeing relief duty at guard and is considered the better physical specimen between the two. Both will play in a rotation at center. Expect the Huskers to settle on one or the other sometime in the first half. Fullback Mike Marrow might return from a knee injury, but may not see much action. Receiver Tim Marlowe is still dealing with a shoulder injury, although he does not appear on the injury report. No. 1 receiver Kenny Bell has a neck injury, but that is not expected to keep him sidelined. Bo Pelini said that Rex Burkhead is 100 percent during Friday’s press conference.
Keys To The Game
Score Early And Often: Everyone is wondering whether Nebraska can stop the Wisconsin running game. No one seems to be asking whether Wisconsin can slow down the Nebraska offense. Wisconsin isn’t built to overcome large deficits. The Huskers need to score touchdowns and not field goals around the goal line.
Execute: Receivers need to catch the ball. Taylor Martinez needs to play smart. The defense needs to make tackles. Keep Ball and White from breaking big runs. Avoid blown coverages and get lined up correctly.
Mistakes: Fumbles and drive-killing penalties hurt Nebraska in the Iowa game. Untimely turnovers have plagued Nebraska throughout the season on what should be routine plays.
Control Wisconsin’s Dimensions: Force Wisconsin to be one-dimensional. Put pressure on Phillips with hits, sacks and interceptions. Keep the Badger defense off balance with big plays on the ground and through the air. Take the lead and make Wisconsin run when they need to pass.
Taylor Martinez: The talk of Burkhead and Abdullah is all well and good, but the true wild card in all this is the play of Martinez. Martinez has the ability to rip off a 75-yard run while Wisconsin is worrying about Nebraska’s other weapons. He needs to be an accurate passer and to make good reads on zone-read handoffs. Martinez also needs to avoid throwing the ball up for grabs or putting the ball on the ground if Wisconsin should unexpectedly break through Nebraska’s patchwork offensive line.
By Steve Siedlik