By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
How is this for an introduction into the Big Ten? Nebraska’s first game in the conference is in Madison, home of the defending Big Ten champs and one of the top 10 teams in college football.
Sounds easy right?
This matchup was surrounded by a lot of hype in the offseason and should live up to it on Saturday.
The Badgers have steamrolled through their schedule, winning every game by at least 34 points. Although Wisconsin was in good shape exiting spring practice, the offense got a boost with the arrival of quarterback Russell Wilson from NC State. The senior has been a perfect fit for the offense and is one of the top contenders to win the Heisman.
Nebraska also enters undefeated, but hasn’t had it as easy as Wisconsin. The Cornhuskers were pushed by Fresno State and Washington, but found a way to win both games.
This will be the first meeting between these schools since 1974. These two teams have played five times overall, with the Cornhuskers owning a 3-2 series edge. However, the stakes are higher now that these two teams are in the same conference and will be playing each other on a regular basis.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
New coordinator Tim Beck has tweaked the offensive scheme to give Nebraska more flexibility and to take advantage of the athletic ability of quarterback Taylor Martinez. The Cornhuskers will rely on the option, but will also line up out of the shotgun and pistol formation.
When Martinez is healthy, he is one of the Big Ten’s top playmakers. The sophomore is averaging 267 total yards a game this year, with most of his damage coming on the ground. Martinez leads the team with 421 rushing yards and has at least 12 rushing attempts in every game this year.
Martinez is still developing as a passer, as evidenced by his 50.6 completion percentage. The Cornhuskers also have a young group of receivers, led by redshirt freshman Kenny Bell, sophomore Quincy Enunwa and true freshman Jamal Turner. Junior tight end Kyler Reed is also a dangerous threat in the open field.
Keeping Martinez healthy all year is going to be critical for Nebraska’s Big Ten title hopes. After he suffered a leg injury against Missouri last season, the Nebraska offense was never the same.
If it’s not Martinez doing the damage on the ground, then it’s running back Rex Burkhead. The junior is an underrated player nationally, rushing for 420 yards and seven scores so far this season. Burkhead also runs Nebraska’s Wildcat formation and is a threat to throw.
Can Wisconsin find a way to slow down Martinez? The Badgers rank 22nd nationally against the run and are allowing only 8.5 points a game. However, the Nebraska offense is going to be its toughest test so far.
The Badgers struggled to stop Michigan’s Denard Robinson last season, and Martinez is going to bring a similar style to Madison on Saturday. It’s important for the Wisconsin defense to contain the edges and not allow Martinez to get to the outside. If the Cornhuskers are able to get their rushing attack going, they will have opportunities to make plays in the passing game on play action.
Stopping Nebraska’s run and forcing the Huskers to throw is likely going to be the goal for Wisconsin’s defense. Martinez has shown he can be hit or miss as a passer, and the Badgers cannot allow him to get 100 yards on the ground.
The Wisconsin defense has good experience at each level, but is anchored by linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. Both players are going to be in the spotlight on Saturday night, as they will have to help keep Martinez and Burkhead in check. Nebraska’s offensive line is young, so Wisconsin’s front four has an opportunity to win the battle and gain control at the line of scrimmage.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
The Badgers enter this matchup ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in total offense with 532.3 yards per game. The competition hasn’t been great, but there’s a lot to like with this group.
Quarterback Russell Wilson quickly picked up the offense after arriving during the summer and has arguably been the Big Ten's top quarterback through the first four weeks. Wilson has thrown for 1,136 yards and 11 scores in four games, while tossing only one pick.
In addition to his success through the air, Wilson is capable of making plays with his feet. In the opener against UNLV, the senior scored on a 46-yard touchdown run.
Despite not having much time to work with the offense in the preseason, the senior has developed a good rapport with receivers Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis, along with tight end Jacob Pederson.
Although Wilson has been one of the top players in college football through the first four games, Wisconsin won’t stray far from its bread and butter. Montee Ball and James White are among the top running back duos in college football and both are off to a fast start. Ball has registered 360 rushing yards and nine scores, while White has 303 yards and three scores.
Despite losing two key starters to the NFL, the offensive line continues to play well. The Badgers are averaging 5.7 yards per attempt, along with posting 16 total rushing scores. Wisconsin quarterbacks have been sacked only five times this year.
The arrival of Wilson has added more balance to the Badgers’ offense, which figures to give Nebraska all it can handle. The Cornhuskers are having an uncharacteristic start on defense, ranking 56th against the run and 63rd nationally against the pass.
The defense will be getting some key reinforcements for this game, as tackle Jared Crick is back after missing last week’s contest against Wyoming, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is expected to be closer to 100 percent. Dennard sat out the first three games due to a muscle injury, but played some in last week’s victory over Wyoming.
The Cornhuskers have not looked like a shutdown defense through the first four weeks of the season, but could that change on Saturday? Having Crick and Dennard at 100 percent will help and how much was the defense showing in non-conference matchups?
Matching Wisconsin’s physicality in the trenches will be a key for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers need a big game from Crick and fellow tackle Baker Steinkuhler to help slow Wisconsin’s rushing attack. Ends Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah can’t allow Wilson to sit back in the pocket all day or it could be a long night for Nebraska’s defense. Don’t expect Wilson to run a lot, but his ability to extend plays or roll out of the pocket to hit passes will be critical.
The Cornhuskers have a difficult assignment ahead, as this is a very balanced Wisconsin attack. Can the defense slow Ball and White, while limiting Wilson through the air? It’s not going to be an easy task, but Nebraska has the pieces to do it.
Keep an eye on Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah on kick returns. The freshman is averaging 42.5 yards per return and has taken one kickoff for a score.
Brett Maher has been a fine replacement for Alex Henery, connecting on eight of nine attempts for the Cornhuskers this season.
Wisconsin’s Kyle French has connected on two attempts this season, but missed two attempts from 50 yards. Punter Brad Nortman is averaging a solid 43.4 yards per punt.
The Badgers will lean on James White and Jared Abbrederis in the return game.
Is this the first of two times Nebraska and Wisconsin will meet on the field? Both teams entered the year as the favorite to win its division in the conference race, so it would not be a shock to see these two teams meet in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game on Dec. 3.
Nebraska’s defense has not yet played up to typical Blackshirt expectations. With Crick and Dennard back in the lineup, the Cornhuskers should have their best performance of the season. However, stopping a balanced Wisconsin attack is not going to be easy.
When the Cornhuskers have the ball, quarterback Taylor Martinez has to have a good game. Running back Rex Burkhead should get to 100 yards, but Martinez has to make smart decisions, especially when passing, while making plays with his legs.
Camp Randall Stadium should be rocking on Saturday. The Badgers look like a national title contender, while Nebraska is making its Big Ten debut. Expect a tight game into the fourth quarter, but the homefield edge will be just enough for Wisconsin to pull out the victory.
Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 27
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