Saturday’s meeting in Lincoln between Nebraska and Wisconsin was billed in August as one of the Big Ten’s must-see matchups and potentially an elimination game for the West Division. That preseason storyline hasn’t quite panned out as expected, but there’s still plenty of time for the Badgers and Cornhuskers to climb back into the West Division title picture. Both teams are 0-1 in conference play after losing last Saturday and an 0-2 start would be tough to overcome in a division that features surprising 5-0 teams in Northwestern and Iowa.
These two programs were tied together in the offseason with the arrival of new coaching staffs. Nebraska’s Mike Riley is off to a 2-3 start, but the Cornhuskers lost all three of their games by five points or less. On the other sideline, Paul Chryst returns to Madison after a three-year stint at Pittsburgh. The Badgers are 3-2, with losses coming against Alabama and Iowa.
An 0-2 start in Big Ten play by either program doesn’t necessarily eliminate that team from winning the division. However, an 0-2 start likely requires a perfect record the rest of the way. It’s hard to call Saturday’s game a must-win situation for either team, but Nebraska could use some positive momentum after three crushing losses in 2015.
Wisconsin owns a 5-4 edge in the all-time series against Nebraska. The Badgers won last season’s meeting 59-24. However, the Cornhuskers have won all three meetings in Lincoln.
Wisconsin at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC/ESPN2
Spread: Nebraska -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska’s Defense
The Blackshirts are off to a sluggish start. Through five games, Nebraska is giving up 6.1 yards per play, has surrendered 10 plays of 40 yards more and ranks last in the Big Ten in pass defense. While this unit is transitioning to a new scheme under coordinator Mark Banker, injuries have been problematic. The defensive line will be shorthanded on Saturday, as Freedom Akinmoladun, Kevin Maurice and Kevin Williams are all out due to injury. Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine does have a chance to return from a high ankle sprain, and end Jack Gangwish is slated for a bigger role after playing limited snaps against Illinois due to an elbow injury. The injury problems for Banker’s defense continues for the back seven, as linebacker Josh Banderas and cornerback Daniel Davie are expected to miss Saturday’s game. While this unit has allowed its share of yardage, the Cornhuskers are limiting the damage. Nebraska’s defense ranks fourth in the Big Ten in red zone and third-down defense. Considering the injuries on this side of the ball, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wisconsin have success moving the ball. Can the Cornhuskers hold the Badgers to three points and generate stops in the red zone?
2. Tommy Armstrong Versus Joel Stave
Quarterback play is always under the spotlight and magnified in close games, but it’s even more critical with some of the question marks surrounding Tommy Armstrong and Joel Stave. The Badgers are normally one of the Big Ten’s top rushing teams. However, Wisconsin is only averaging 167.8 yards per game (ninth in the Big Ten). Star running back Corey Clement is sidelined due to injury, and the offensive line is also dealing with a few ailments. Stave has benefitted the most from Chryst’s return on offense, throwing for 1,064 yards and seven scores in Wisconsin’s first five games. Top receiver Alex Erickson may return for the Badgers after missing snaps in last Saturday’s contest against Iowa due to a concussion. Getting Erickson back in the mix is huge for Stave, as he has 26 of the team’s 98 catches. On the Nebraska sideline, Armstrong is looking for a bounce back performance after completing 10 of 31 passes for 105 yards against Illinois last Saturday. The Badgers have been stingy against the pass this year, holding opponents to a 54.5 completion percentage. But the junior quarterback does have a potential ace up his sleeve, as receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El is slated to see more snaps on offense after returning from a preseason foot injury in the loss against Illinois. Both teams have been steady against the run. Saturday’s game could be decided by which quarterback makes the most throws in the clutch.
Neither team has much margin for error on Saturday. With a close game anticipated, one or two plays might swing the game in one program’s direction. Of course, that’s where Nebraska has struggled this year. The Cornhuskers lost to BYU on a Hail Mary touchdown pass on the final play of the game, was defeated by Illinois on a last-second touchdown toss and was dropped in overtime on the road in Miami. Considering little separates these two teams, it’s important for Wisconsin and Nebraska to minimize the mistakes. The Cornhuskers are minus-four in turnover margin, while the Badgers are in the plus-one category. After coming up short with three games on the line so far this year, will Nebraska erase some of the bad feelings from its 2-3 start with a play in the clutch on Saturday afternoon? And if the Badgers play a mistake-free game, establish the run and allow Stave to get into third-and-manageable situations, this team should be in good position to exit Lincoln with a victory.
This one is a tossup. Wisconsin is the better defensive team, but Nebraska has the edge on offense. How much can Pierson-El handle this week? If he’s healthy, the junior is a significant downfield threat and a weapon on special teams for the Cornhuskers. After not closing the door on BYU or Illinois, will Saturday be the moment Nebraska breaks through with a close win? The guess here is yes. Armstrong does just enough through the air and on the ground, while the defense limits the Badgers’ ground attack to put Stave in several third-and-long situations. The Cornhuskers' struggles against the pass are well documented this season. Will Stave have enough help from the supporting cast to exploit the defense? This one may come down to the final possession.