With Ohio State ineligible to win the Big Ten title, it’s not crazy to think Saturday’s matchup between Wisconsin and Nebraska could be a preview of the conference’s title game in early December. The Badgers dominated last season’s matchup, winning 48-17 in Madison. In last year’s game, Russell Wilson threw for 255 yards, while Wisconsin gashed Nebraska for 231 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
There’s plenty of differences for both teams since last season’s meeting, and both have experienced some early turmoil. Wisconsin fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after a slow start, while Nebraska coach Bo Pelini left the game against Arkansas State due to illness and its defense isn't playing at a high level. However, the Cornhuskers are in a more stable situation going into Big Ten play, especially since the Badgers are still adjusting to the changes on the coaching staff.
Four Storylines to Watch in Nebraska vs. Wisconsin
Can Wisconsin get its ground game on track?
Was last week’s performance against UTEP a sign of things to come for the Badgers’ rushing attack? Wisconsin recorded a season high of 213 yards against the Miners, with Melvin Gordon and James White leading the way with Montee Ball sidelined due to a concussion. Ball is expected to return this Saturday, and the senior should be able to find some rushing lanes against a Nebraska defense that ranks 86th nationally against the run. Although quarterback Joel Stave played well in his first start last week, Nebraska would like to load up the box and force the young quarterback to win. It will be important for Ball, Gordon and White to get yardage on the early downs to keep Stave out of third-and-long situations. Which brings us to the next question…
How much can the Badgers ask of Stave?
Wisconsin was looking for a spark when it decided to bench Danny O’Brien in favor of Stave. O’Brien never seemed to find his rhythm in the Badgers’ offense, which opened the door for Stave to start against UTEP. The redshirt freshman came to Madison as a walk-on but played well against the Miners and should give the coaching staff confidence for Saturday night’s game. Another good sign for Wisconsin’s offense was the return of Jared Abbrederis last week, who caught six passes against UTEP and is one of the Big Ten’s best receivers. Stave won’t be asked to throw for 300 yards, but he needs to get off to a good start. The Cornhuskers rank 20th nationally in pass defense but are averaging four sacks per game. Nebraska wants to force the Badgers to lean on Stave to win, which is why Wisconsin needs to establish balance will be critical on Saturday night.
Can Wisconsin slow down Taylor Martinez?
The competition hasn’t been overwhelmingly strong, but the Cornhuskers lead the Big Ten in total and scoring offense, while ranking in the top 10 nationally for both categories. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is off to a hot start, throwing for 878 yards and nine touchdowns, while adding 191 yards and two scores on the ground. The junior quarterback is a much-improved passer and should test a Wisconsin secondary that is allowing 245.3 yards per game. In last year’s matchup, Martinez threw three interceptions and completed 50 just percent of his throws. Big Ten teams considered Martinez more of a threat on the ground in recent years, but that’s no longer the case. Wisconsin hasn’t generated much of a pass rush this season, and if Martinez gets time, the junior will have a chance to pick apart this secondary.
The turnover battle
It seems cliché to say it, but the turnover battle will be crucial in this game. The Badgers have lost only five turnovers but have forced only one this year. Nebraska is tied for ninth in the Big Ten with nine turnovers lost but has forced seven on defense. Although Stave wasn’t bad in his first start last week, Nebraska’s defense will have chances to add to their turnover total.
Expect revenge to be on Nebraska’s mind on Saturday night. The Cornhuskers were thoroughly embarrassed in last year’s game against Wisconsin, but the tables are turned in 2012. Nebraska is the better team, and running back Rex Burkhead showed no ill-effects in his return from a knee injury in last week’s game against Idaho State. The Badgers should be able to run the ball against the Cornhuskers’ front seven, but Stave will have to make plays in order to give his team a chance to win.
Wisconsin seems to have things going back in the right direction, but it’s a lot to ask Stave in his second career start to win in Lincoln.
Prediction: Nebraska 31, Wisconsin 20
by Steven Lassan
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