Game Day: Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

Within reach

Wisconsin is big and physical. But in Nebraska’s last two games against the Badgers, it came down to the smaller stuff. The Huskers have zero margin for error, know it, and will be a double-digit underdog at home. In an up-and-down year, NU isn’t supposed to win this game, but can it?

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Wisconsin rush defense

The Huskers had better pack a lunch. Wisconsin’s run defense gives up just 2.43 yards per carry and has allowed just two runs of 20 yards or longer. The Badgers aren’t fancy against the run, they’re just consistent — consistently tough — with defensive linemen Conor Sheehy and Alec James and undersized-but-rawhide-tough inside linebackers TJ Edwards and Chris Orr. Nebraska has to be diverse in its run game and give carries to Mikale Wilbon, Devine Ozigbo and Jaylin Bradley. Nebraska’s offensive line has been better the last two weeks in wins over Rutgers and Illinois, but Wisconsin is a different kind of nasty. If Nebraska gains 100 yards on the ground, call it good.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense

Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee wobbled badly through a three-game stretch in which he threw nine interceptions, but he righted the ship against Illinois’ secondary. That should help, as should a healthier trio of top wideouts in Stanley Morgan, De’Mornay Pierson-El and JD Spielman. NU’s receivers can make plays on Wisconsin’s secondary, which may be the best the Badgers have had in years but remains vulnerable because of the chances UW takes with its pass rush. The Huskers will have their hands full blocking Wisconsin’s front seven and its basket full of twists, stunts and blitzes. But if they can keep Lee protected, NU will have some downfield chances.

Wisconsin rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Badgers do what they do — they run the heck out of the ball with power plays and pulling offensive linemen and tough tight ends and fullbacks. In each of the last two games, Nebraska has actually held up against Wisconsin’s run game pretty well until the fourth quarter, when the Badgers got some chunk plays. NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s preference for rotating players in his front seven should pay off coming into this game, but Nebraska’s linemen and linebackers haven’t faced a line that averages 322 pounds. UW running back Jonathan Taylor, though just a true freshman, is fast and big. Nebraska can’t let him find open space.

Wisconsin pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Much depends on whether preseason All-America tight end Troy Fumagalli plays in the game. If he does recover enough from a leg injury to get in the game, Nebraska’s coverage assignment gets much harder, as Fumagalli is a giant, athletic target who can catch the ball over defenders. Wisconsin’s receivers — Jazz Peavy, Danny Davis, Quintez Cephus and AJ Taylor — are as good and perhaps a little better than Nebraska's receiving corps, and NU’s secondary isn’t as good as Wisconsin’s. That leaves the Huskers’ front to pressure Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, the lefty with good touch but not much power.

Special teams

Nebraska has the more explosive returners (Spielman on kickoffs, Pierson-El on punts) while Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti has often been excellent this season for the Badgers. NU kicker Drew Brown gets a slight nod over good friend Rafael Gaglianone — who wears No. 27 in honor of former Husker punter Sam Foltz — and Brown is one of the best kickoff guys in college football. Nebraska needs to find a way to steal a touchdown or some key field position here.

Intangibles

NU is 46-5 in home night games, and even if this is one of NU’s toughest, the Huskers have big recent wins (2015 Michigan State, 2014 Miami, 2009 Oklahoma) at night. Nebraska will be honoring the 1997 national title team and wearing alternate uniforms; the Huskers are 2-2 since 2009 in alternates at home. Wisconsin has a psychological advantage over every team in the Big Ten West. Since the West formed in 2014, Wisconsin has lost just one divisional road game — at Northwestern in 2014.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s offensive line vs. Wisconsin’s pass rush

The Badgers’ offense might be slowed some, but Nebraska won’t shut them down entirely, so, somewhere in the course of four quarters, NU will have to score some points and complete some passes. And Lee will only be able to do that if he has the time to do it. Look for the Huskers to throw some on first down to keep Wisconsin off-balance, but Lee has to make plays on third down.

Our take

Here’s the big one. Until Nebraska beats Wisconsin, the Big Ten West bully will continue to punch the Huskers with a power running game and a stingy defense. This isn’t the best NU team that’s come down the pike since 2011, but it’s probably not the best Badger team, either. Nebraska will need a quick start — Wisconsin occasionally can be sluggish early — and withstand the inevitable fourth-quarter UW surge. On the night Nebraska welcomes the 1997 national title team back to Memorial Stadium, the Huskers are game. They have a puncher’s chance.

Our prediction: WISCONSIN 24, NEBRASKA 20

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