The battle for the Big Ten West starts in Lincoln
Please excuse Cornhuskers fans if they’re rolling into the fetal position and sucking their thumbs going into this Saturday’s Nebraska-Wisconsin game. The battle of Big Reds has been one-sided and even rather ugly at times.
In the last six meetings, Wisconsin has won five times by scores like 48-17, 59-24 and a shocking 70-31 in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game, when the Huskers were ranked No. 14 and the Badgers were unranked going in.
Granted, the last two matchups have been white-knuckle affairs. But last year’s 23-17 overtime loss by NU started a downward spiral for the Cornhuskers, leading to four losses in their last six games. Their prospects don’t look much better for this one; UW comes in as a 12-point favorite, and the Huskers have not looked like their usual selves for most of this season, particularly in back-to-back losses at Oregon and home vs. Northern Illinois. The latter showing was followed by the ouster of NU’s athletic director Shawn Eichorst and put head coach Mike Riley even more firmly on the hot seat — if that was even possible.
The Huskers do come in having won their last two, beating Rutgers 27-17 and Illinois 28-6 and showing a little more promise. But this will be a significant step up in competition.
Wisconsin at Nebraska
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -12
Three Things To Watch
1. Wisconsin blitz
Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard used a fairly vanilla scheme in the first three games. But last week, taking on Clayton Thorson and Northwestern, he let his pass rush loose, involving blitzing schemes the Badgers hadn’t shown in any of those first three wins. And it worked, big time. The Badgers sacked Thorson eight times, and even when they rushed only four guys, they kept Thorson on his heels all game long. The Badger D is ranked fourth nationally with 16 sacks on the season. Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee, a Tulane transfer, has shown a tendency to get rattled easily, and this could be the biggest test of his career.
2. Run like Rozier
Can you imagine how relieved the NU coaching staff will be if Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilson can emulate former Husker Heisman winner Mike Rozier and push through the lines and get that running game going? Lee had a nearly perfect first half vs. Illinois, going 11-for-13 for 167 yards and two scores with no picks, but that won’t happen against that nasty Badgers defense. If NU can’t establish a running game and has to rely on Lee’s arm, it’ll be a long and difficult day for the Huskers offense. Nebraska had TD drives of 88, 75, 89 and 93 yards vs. Illinois and will need to give its defense some similar periods of rest vs. UW.
3. Third down
Wisconsin is one of the nation’s best teams in playing the critical down. The Badgers are seventh in FBS and first in the Big Ten with a 51 percent third-down conversion rate on offense, and they're 10th nationally in allowing a 26 percent conversion rate on defense. A huge key for the cheeseheads will be the return of tight end Troy Fumagalli, who ranked fourth in the country among tight ends in receptions before having to sit out last week due to a hamstring issue. He should be back to nearly 100 percent for this game, and his presence in the UW offense is a big difference-maker, especially with his knack for key third-down catches.
Wisconsin is certainly the more complete team, and there are plenty of reasons why the Badgers are ranked ninth in the country. Take away a couple minutes of the fourth quarter when Northwestern scored a pair of late TDs and the Badgers have played perfect football after halftime of all their games this season. In fact, Wisconsin has outscored its opponents 98-14 in the second half of games this season, and the Badgers were the last FBS team to give up a second-half point when Northwestern scored with 4:46 left in their game in Madison last week.
The key here is that nobody makes better in-game adjustments than the Badgers do, so look for the second half to be where UW starts to wear down the Cornhuskers' resolve. This battle of unbeatens in Big Ten West play will also certainly be affected by the turnover margin. Nebraska can’t afford to give some freebies away to the more talented Badgers. If the home Big Red gets a case of the butterfingers, this one could get ugly in favor of the road Big Red.
Prediction: Wisconsin 35, Nebraska 20
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.
(Top photo courtesy of @BadgerFootball)