Game Day: Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

Fuel for the fight

Nebraska’s in for a Saturday night fight at Wisconsin. So with their backs against the wall, where do the Huskers find the fuel to fight back?

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Wisconsin rush defense

Save one hideous game at Michigan, NU’s running game has been much improved this season. The mere threat of quarterback Adrian Martinez — coupled with his ability to scramble out of trouble — keeps Nebraska dangerous, and the Huskers’ offensive line has opened bigger holes in the inside zone run game. Devine Ozigbo has been the most recent Husker to run through them, and NU will get Maurice Washington back in the lineup. Wisconsin’s run defense, usually excellent, has been decidedly pedestrian this season, giving up 4.39 yards per carry. Even with 342-pound Badger nose tackle Olive Sagapolu in the middle, Nebraska can move these guys.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense

Martinez found holes in Purdue’s defense for 300 yards passing. JD Spielman had a big day on seam routes and bubble screens, and he’ll probably get more playing time after Tyjon Lindsey left the program. NU’s receiver depth remains an issue — only Spielman and Stanley Morgan are proven commodities — and Wisconsin has a decent secondary, anchored by safety D’Cota Dixon. If Nebraska can involve its tight ends — as Iowa did throwing for 256 total yards — it’d have a better chance to make a dent in Wisconsin’s defense. The stage is big, though, and Wisconsin’s defense doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.

Wisconsin rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

We thought Nebraska’s rush defense would hold up well at Michigan. We were dead wrong. The Huskers weren’t ready for the Wolverines’ power-run offense. Even if NU’s defense is far more familiar with Wisconsin’s personnel, the Badgers have a better back (Jonathan Taylor) than anyone at Michigan, and Wisconsin is collectively averaging 5.76 yards per carry. Nebraska has shown itself vulnerable to power runs with pullers in front, and the Badgers specialize in those. Wisconsin’s barge of an offensive line will likely part Nebraska’s waters.

Wisconsin pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Alex Hornibrook has the arm strength of a 47-year-old retired quarterback, but the lefty is crafty and playing terrific ball right now, completing two-thirds of his passes for 8.9 yards per attempt. Freshman tight end Jake Ferguson — grandson of Wisconsin legend Barry Alvarez — is a gem (13.8 yards per catch), and receiver AJ Taylor is the big-play guy (19.6). Nebraska needs a better pass rush from the front four — virtually non-existent against Michigan and Purdue — and hopes Eric Lee, the corner opposite a consistent Dicaprio Bootle, can stabilize the secondary after Lamar Jackson's benching. Wisconsin’s runs set up the pass, and Hornibrook is only as good as his protection and play-action fakes.

Special teams

Nebraska’s punter fell right on his rear end attempting a rugby punt. NU’s new kick returner seemingly tripped over his own steps. NU’s kicker tried a 54-yard field goal that turned into a grounder. Nebraska’s special teams is still struggling.

Intangibles

Wisconsin has a big psychological advantage over the Huskers with wins in the last five games of this series. The Badgers do the little things better than NU, which includes drawing fewer penalties. Nebraska has never played particularly well in recent trips to Camp Randall Stadium, and it’s only the second road start for Martinez. Even though Nebraska is desperate for a win, nothing lines up real kindly.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s inside zone run play vs. Wisconsin’s front seven

NU’s bread-and-butter run play is the shotgun inside zone, a staple of the Scott Frost offense. If Nebraska’s backs can get downhill quickly and pop off five to 10 yards every so often, the Huskers’ offense can stay on schedule and have a chance. Once that play works, Martinez can dial a keeper on a zone-read play, or the slant pass off a run-pass option is available, too.

Our take

It was a measuring stick game before the season, and it is now. Few picked the Huskers to win at Big Ten West bully Wisconsin, and it’d be the upset of the Big Ten calendar if it happened Saturday. The Huskers have too many warts — penalties, defensive busts, a surprising lack of playmakers at receiver and tight end — to be anything but a big underdog. And according to Las Vegas, they are, by roughly three touchdowns. While it may go down that way, NU can give Wisconsin a few fits if it can start better and run the ball. Most years, the Badgers’ defense is too stingy. This year, Wisconsin will bend just enough to make it interesting for awhile. The Badgers win, but maybe a silver lining comes out of Camp Randall.

Our prediction: WISCONSIN 31 NEBRASKA 21

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