November is loaded with critical matchups that will shape conference and national title races, and perhaps no division illustrates that point better than the Big Ten West. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin are all 4-1 in conference play heading into Week 12. And all three teams are set to play each other over the next few weeks, with 3-2 Iowa also in the discussion.
Considering the 4-1 three-team logjam at the top of the division, clarity within the division should start on Saturday with Nebraska traveling to Madison to take on Wisconsin. There are several similarities between these two teams, including style of play, a Heisman contender at running back and a close loss in early October.
Nebraska and Wisconsin have only met eight previous times, and the overall series is tied at four victories apiece. These two teams did not play in 2013, and the Cornhuskers won the first meeting in 2012 but lost 70-31 to the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship.
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC/ESPN2
Spread: Wisconsin -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah’s Health
Abdullah suffered a knee injury against Purdue on Nov. 1, but all signs point to the senior playing against Wisconsin this Saturday. Abdullah is one of the top running backs in the nation and is critical to the overall success of the offense. A healthy and effective Abdullah makes life much easier for quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Abdullah recorded only one rushing yard against Purdue but has four 200-yard games this year. Through five games, Wisconsin’s rush defense has allowed just three scores and leads the Big Ten in fewest yards allowed (100.8 ypg). While the Badgers lead the conference against the run, Abdullah is easily their toughest challenge so far this year. Assuming he’s healthy, Abdullah is going to be a handful for the Badgers.
2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon against Nebraska’s Run Defense
It’s no secret both of these teams want to establish the run on offense. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten by averaging 325.7 rushing yards per game, while Nebraska is second with 280.7 yards per contest. And the picture isn’t much different on defense, as both programs rank close in terms of yards allowed. Nebraska’s rush defense is allowing 130 yards per game in Big Ten action, but two of its last four opponents have recorded more than that mark (Michigan State and Rutgers). Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is considered one of the top-five candidates to win the Heisman and will be a handful for the Nebraska defense. No team has found an answer to stopping Gordon this year, as the junior has at least 120 yards in every FBS contest. And Gordon has been on a tear recently, recording 205 yards against Purdue, 259 against Northwestern and 175 against Illinois. Nebraska should be the best defense the Badgers have played since the opener against LSU. Will Gordon add to his Heisman resume? Or will the Cornhuskers find a way to limit the damage? Nebraska doesn’t necessarily have to limit Gordon below 100 yards, but the junior has 13 rushes of 30 yards or more this year. For the Cornhuskers to win, they need to limit Gordon’s big plays, force a couple of turnovers and get Wisconsin into third-and-long situations.
3. The Quarterbacks
With Abdullah and Gordon stealing the spotlight, the two quarterbacks – Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong and Wisconsin’s Joel Stave – are often overlooked. On Saturday, it’s not crazy to think the game could be decided on which quarterback makes more plays in the passing game. Sure, that seems obvious, but both teams plan on a run-first approach, and the defenses want to key on stopping the ground attack. If the rushing game stalls out, which quarterback can deliver through the air? Armstrong has posted better numbers in 2014, but Stave did not play in the first four games due to an occurrence of the “yips.” Stave is coming off his best performance of the year, completing 19 of 29 passes for 219 yards and two scores. Armstrong is still developing in his first full season as Nebraska’s starter, as the sophomore has three games of 48 percent or less in completion percentage. Armstrong also adds a different dimension than Stave. The sophomore has 571 rushing yards and four scores this year. Stave is clearly a pocket passer, and he could share time with mobile junior Tanner McEvoy. Don’t expect either team to throw for 300 yards on Saturday, but one team may need a play or two on a potential game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Both quarterbacks are overlooked due to the star power at running back. However, if the game is on the line, will it be Stave or Armstrong that can deliver in the clutch?
Mississippi State-Alabama and Florida State-Miami are games garnering more attention on Saturday, but the Wisconsin-Nebraska matchup has plenty of intrigue and potential. And this game is worth the price of admission just for the running back battle between Gordon and Abdullah. Despite both teams having success against the run, Gordon and Abdullah will have their share of successful plays. But the outcome of this game will be decided on the arms of Stave or Armstrong, as well as the play of both defenses. Very little separates Nebraska and Wisconsin. And in a tight game, home-field advantage is worth a couple of points. The Badgers win a close one and take an early lead for the West Division title.