The battle to win the Big Ten’s West Division comes into focus on Saturday night, as Nebraska travels to Madison to take on Wisconsin in a crucial game for both teams. The Cornhuskers enter Week 9 atop the West Division at 4-0 in Big Ten action. However, Nebraska has yet to hit the toughest part of its schedule, which begins on Saturday night against the Badgers. Wisconsin has already navigated the toughest portion of its schedule and plays three out of its last five games at home. The Badgers are 2-2 in conference play but suffered defeats against Michigan and Ohio State – two of the nation’s top teams. The winner of Saturday night’s matchup between the Badgers and Cornhuskers is likely to win the West Division.
Nebraska has already exceeded its win total from coach Mike Riley’s first year in Lincoln (six) last year. The Cornhuskers are off to a 7-0 start, and both sides of the ball have made improvement from 2015. Most importantly, Nebraska is doing a better job in taking care of the ball (plus-five turnover margin) after recording a minus-12 margin last season. The Cornhuskers are also doing a better job of finishing games after suffering a handful of close losses in 2015. After Saturday’s game at Wisconsin, Nebraska still has to take on Ohio State in Columbus and closes out 2016 in Iowa City against Iowa. While it’s clear the Cornhuskers are improved in Riley’s second year, the next five games will provide a better barometer of where this team stands.
Wisconsin is also under the direction of a second-year coach, and Paul Chryst is doing an outstanding job despite one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Even though the Badgers are 2-2 in league play, a trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl is within reach if this program can win its next five games. Wisconsin more than held its own in matchups against Ohio State (30-23 loss in overtime) and Michigan (14-7), showing this program is clearly trending in the right direction under Chryst’s watch.
Wisconsin holds a 6-4 edge in the all-time series against Nebraska. These two teams have met five times as members of the Big Ten, with the Badgers holding a 4-1 advantage. Nebraska’s only win over Wisconsin in conference play came in 2012, with a 30-27 victory in Lincoln on Sept. 29.
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Wisconsin -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Heading into the 2016 season, it was no secret Nebraska’s hopes of contending for the Big Ten West Division title rested on quarterback Tommy Armstrong and his development in the second year working with coordinator Danny Langsdorf and coach Mike Riley. In 12 games last year, Armstrong threw for 3,030 yards and 22 touchdowns but also accounted for 16 interceptions and completed only 55.2 percent of his passes. Improving his efficiency and lowering the turnovers were two goals this year, and the senior has exhibited better control with the ball (five turnovers) but the completion percentage (55.4) leaves room for improvement. Armstrong remains a dangerous threat on the ground, recording 380 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 81 carries. His ability to make plays when the pocket breaks down or on designed runs could come in handy on Saturday night.
Wisconsin’s defense has been a brick wall all season. The Badgers are holding opponents to just 14.3 points a game, rank fourth in the Big Ten by limiting offenses to just 4.89 yards per play and has allowed only four passing scores in 2016. The success for this unit starts in the front seven. New coordinator Justin Wilcox utilizes an attacking group of linebackers to set the tone for this unit, starting with Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt (9.5 TFL) and T.J. Edwards (44 tackles). This trio will be responsible for keeping Armstrong in the pocket, as well as pressuring an offensive line that has allowed only five sacks in seven games.
So far this season, Armstrong has delivered in the clutch and is doing a good job of limiting the overall mistakes. However, Saturday night against Wisconsin’s defense is the toughest assignment Armstrong has faced in 2016. Will the senior continue to take care of the ball and utilize his legs to make plays on the edge when the pocket breaks down? And can Armstrong connect on any deep shots against a secondary that has allowed only one pass play to go beyond 50 yards? Armstrong has to have an efficient, yet productive night for Nebraska to win in Madison.
2. Wisconsin’s Ground Game
Despite replacing all four defensive line starters from last season, Nebraska’s front seven has held its own against the run. The Cornhuskers are fourth in the Big Ten in rush defense (124.4 ypg) and limit opponents to just 4.2 yards per carry. However, Nebraska has surrendered five rushing plays of 40 yards or more (11th in the Big Ten) and hasn’t exactly faced the gauntlet of offenses with imposing ground attacks so far. Wisconsin ranks seventh in the Big Ten in rushing (173 ypg) and isn’t as dominant on the ground as it has been in recent years. However, the Badgers are starting to put the pieces in place, as the offensive line seems to be finding the right mix behind left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, and running back Corey Clement is back to full strength after dealing with an ankle injury earlier this fall. Clement is one of the Big Ten’s top running backs and has rushed for 617 yards and six touchdowns through six games in 2016. The senior pounded his way for 164 yards against Ohio State’s defense and 134 against Iowa last Saturday. If Clement has that type of game on Saturday, that’s bad news for Nebraska. Wisconsin’s offense relies on getting the ground attack going to limit the third-and-long plays and open up play action for redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
Nebraska’s rebuilt defensive line has aced its first seven tests of 2016. Will this unit rise to the challenge once again on Saturday night and keep Clement in check? Or will the Wisconsin offensive line set the tone by winning the battle up front and allowing Clement to eclipse 100 yards for the third consecutive game?
3. Wisconsin’s Passing Attack Against Nebraska’s Secondary
As mentioned in the previous section, the foundation for Wisconsin’s success and gameplan on offense starts with the ground game. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook replaced Bart Houston as the team’s starter on Sept. 24 against Michigan State and guided the Badgers to a road win in East Lansing. Hornibrook is 2-2 as the team’s starter and has not attempted more than 28 throws in a game this year. The redshirt freshman tossed three picks against Michigan, which has skewed his season total (six). Overall, Hornibrook has been efficient and can drop the ball into tight spaces against good coverage. The Badgers don’t have an All-Big Ten receiver on the roster, but Jazz Peavy (15.9 ypc) and Robert Wheelwright (15.5 ypc) have been effective. Tight end Troy Fumagalli has been the favorite target in the passing game (25 catches).
Nebraska hasn’t faced the toughest slate of quarterbacks and passing games this season, but this secondary is one of the best in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers rank third in pass efficiency defense, have surrendered only six passing scores and have allowed just two passing plays of 40 yards or more. Safety Nate Gerry is making a strong push for first-team All-Big Ten honors, but cornerback Chris Jones is quietly having a standout season. The junior has seven pass breakups and three interceptions in 2016.
Wisconsin wants to establish the run, allow Hornibrook to throw in rhythm and quickly to prevent the pass rush from disrupting the timing of the young quarterback. Nebraska needs to establish a pass rush or generate a few havoc plays around the line of scrimmage, but the secondary is a good matchup against Wisconsin’s receiving corps. Peavy, Wheelwright and Fumagalli are solid targets, but the Badgers have only three passing plays of 40 yards or more. If Nebraska controls Clement on first and second downs, getting Hornibrook into third-and-long situations leads into a good matchup for the Cornhuskers’ secondary. Can the Wisconsin receivers win the one-on-one battles against the Nebraska defensive backs? Or will the Cornhuskers blanket the Badgers with tight coverage, allowing the front four an extra second or two to generate a push in the trenches?
Iowa or Northwestern could have something to say about which team wins the Big Ten West, but the safe pick is either Nebraska or Wisconsin represents the division in Indianapolis in early December. And there’s no doubt the winner of this game is going to have a slight advantage the rest of the way, even though the Badgers would still rank behind (in the division) against the Cornhuskers with a win on Saturday night. The keys to the game are pretty simple for both teams. Establishing the run is critical for both offenses, while the two quarterbacks – Tommy Armstrong and Alex Hornibrook – will be counted upon to make timely plays in the passing game. Armstrong is doing a better job of managing the game and limiting mistakes this year, but Wisconsin’s defense is the best unit he will face so far in 2016. A tight game should be expected. However, the Badgers are more battle tested, have the home-field advantage and the better defense.