Scott Frost can help the morale of the Nebraska Cornhuskers do a near 180-degree turn if he can lead his winless squad to what would be an extremely impressive upset over the Wisconsin Badgers. Unfortunately, history has not been kind to the Big Red when matching up against Bucky’s Boys.
While the series sits at 8-4 in favor of Wisconsin, the Badgers are 6-1 since Nebraska arrived on the Big Ten scene back in 2011. Paul Chryst may have won the de facto Big Ten West Division championship last week as the No. 16 Badgers defeated Iowa 28-17. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook had his best game of the season going 17-of-22 for 205 yards and three touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, Nebraska showed more determination in the second half of their 42-28 loss to Purdue than they had since the Colorado game. That said, they’re going to need more than four quarters of physical football following a massive depth chart shakeup if they want to notch their first win of the season.
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -17.5
1. Nebraska’s new offensive line vs. Wisconsin’s pass rush
We saw plenty of new faces across the board when the Huskers took the field for the second half versus Purdue. Now, the official depth chart reflects those changes. One major shift is moving Tanner Farmer from right guard to center and promoting Boe Wilson to a starting role at guard. This new interior lineup gives the Big Red improved run blocking, but like Michigan, Wisconsin will no doubt be coming for Adrian Martinez early and often.
Wilson has proven to be a ferocious player, but the biggest question mark comes in the form of right tackle Matt Farniok. As of this writing, Wisconsin senior outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel is listed as questionable with a leg injury, but he’s still an excellent defender and leads the Badgers in quarterback hurries. He may be slowed down just enough for Farniok to win more battles than he would if Van Ginkel was 100 percent.
Expect inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly to be unleashed repeatedly in an effort to bust through and make life miserable for Martinez and other Husker ball carriers.
2. How the Huskers defend the Badgers’ run game
Traditionally, Wisconsin has been able to grind the Huskers into the dirt on their way to victory and that may be the case yet again this Saturday. Sensational sophomore Jonathan Taylor averages 26 carries per game and has yet to be held under 100 yards this season, though he hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown in the Badgers’ past two games.
Iowa’s fourth-ranked rushing defense held him largely held him in check while BYU (63rd) did the same. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky (74th) and New Mexico (114th) gave up a combined 398 yards and five touchdowns to Taylor. He got 33 carries against the Lobos alone, and still finished with a 7.7 yards per carry average in the 45-14 win.
Taylor isn’t the only threat Nebraska needs to take into account. Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek are both capable of spelling him. The Huskers may choose to sell out to stop Wisconsin’s ground game and take their chances with Hornibrook’s occasionally erratic play from the pocket.
3. Can Nebraska’s second half effort vs. Purdue carry over?
It’s important to note how the Huskers responded after falling behind 20-7 to the Boilermakers at halftime. Nebraska hung tough with Purdue the final two quarters (outscored 22-21), which was a welcome sight. That heart and never-die attitude was something Big Red fans hadn't seen since the "opener" against Colorado.
Maintaining that mentality in Camp Randall at night is a tall order, though. It’s one thing to have nearly 90,000 people cheering you on as opposed to 80,000-plus celebrating your every failure, let alone to an almost deafening degree. Michigan itself was too much for Nebraska to handle, but the Big House is an iconic stadium more than anything and far from intimidating. Wisconsin’s home is very much the opposite as the Huskers know all too well.
Simply put, the Badgers have had the Huskers’ number as of late. Covering the spread seems like a worthwhile goal, but obviously Scott Frost isn’t interested in moral victories. Upsetting the nation’s No. 16 team in their stadium on prime-time television would be an incredible shot in the arm for a program severely needing one.
The good news for Nebraska is that the Badgers do allow 135 rushing yards per game and yielded the most this season to the nation’s 103rd-best rushing offense (191 yards and two touchdowns versus BYU). Despite having an amazing athlete in defensive back D’Cota Dixon, they trot out the nation’s 96th-best passing defense.
However, where the Badgers excel is keeping the opposition out of the end zone as they tout the 10th-best scoring defense. Offensively, Wisconsin has enough weapons to bash a Husker defense that’s giving up 39 points per game until it breaks. If history has taught us anything, it’s that this game should be put away by the Badgers come the fourth quarter and the final score may look more impressive than the game actually was.
If Nebraska wants to pull the upset, they must not only score early before Wisconsin can get moving — they average four points in the first quarter — but find success where little has shown. Good special teams work, forcing turnovers, keeping penalties down, all of this is crucial to the Huskers shocking Paul Chryst and company. Can the Huskers win? This is college football. Anything can happen. Will they? They haven’t stopped shooting themselves in the foot yet. Their margin for error this week is slim and that is likely their downfall.
Prediction: Wisconsin 41, Nebraska 24
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) plus keep up with the Quick N Dirty podcasts and stat-filled features on his Patreon page.