Game Day: Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

Still fired up

There's no division title, they have a losing record and bowl hopes are slim. Yet these Huskers still say the fire burns inside them. So where do they go to find the motivation they need to take on Wisconsin?

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Wisconsin rush defense

The Huskers have to find a way to carve out 100 rushing yards Saturday. To do so means they can stay on the field longer against Wisconsin’s defense. Here’s the thing: Only Illinois and Ohio State have topped 100 rushing yards on the Badgers this season. They’re also the teams who have beaten Wisconsin this season. NU’s run game, because it involves the quarterback, tends to get pretty good mileage, and the Huskers absolutely have to involve the quarterback in the run game Saturday. Wisconsin does a terrific job of fitting various run schemes, but the addition of the quarterback will make it trickier for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s bunch. We think Nebraska does better-than-expected here.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense

The Badgers’ pass defense is a beast. Good on the back end — even if a little susceptible to the big play — and a terror with its pass rush. Wisconsin averages nearly four sacks per game and many more pressures, baffling offensive lines with a clever, tightly executed blitz packages that feature stud pass rushers Zack Baun and Chris Orr. Neither are big guys, but they’re quick. Wisconsin’s defensive front can handle itself, too. Nebraska’s offensive line has been better in recent weeks at protecting the quarterback — Purdue and Indiana each had one sack — but the best defenses it has played — Ohio State and Minnesota — set up camp in NU’s pocket. NU better run the ball well, because throwing it won’t be easy.

Wisconsin rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

Pack a lunch. The Badgers have run the ball for miles on Nebraska, and Jonathan Taylor is both a power back in short yardage and the speed racer who can break big runs. He doesn’t skitter around, so zone plays don’t suit him as much. He’s better with a lead blocker or counter action where he can he can find a crack, bust through it and accelerate. Wisconsin’s offensive line seems superior to its 2018 unit, and Taylor’s backups, Nakia Watson and fullback Garrett Groshek, have their roles, too. Nebraska’s run defense started the season strong, but it has eroded. If nose tackle Darrion Daniels is too banged up to play, it could be a long afternoon for NU’s front. Over/under is 200 yards. Take the over.

Wisconsin pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

The Badgers’ pass game looks beautiful on paper — 74% completion rate, 7.9 yards per attempt — because it benefits so much from the run game. Jack Coan is a smart, serviceable quarterback — Nebraska chose Tristan Gebbia over Coan for the 2017 recruiting class — and he has better-than-you-think pass catchers in Quintez Cephus, Jake Ferguson, Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor and AJ Taylor. That quintet is better than any five Nebraska can put out there, And that doesn’t include Taylor, who has caught 18 passes for 151 yards and four TDs. NU’s pass rush has struggled all year and isn’t likely to puncture Wisconsin’s front very often. UW’s setup will be a challenge for a Husker defense that’s faced spread systems all season.

Special teams

The Badgers have a skilled kickoff returner in Aron Cruickshank, a good punt returner in Jack Dunn and in punter Anthony Lotti, a comparable player to Nebraska’s Isaac Armstrong. UW has struggled to make field goals — 7 of 12 on the season — but, overall, features a superior special teams to Nebraska, which needs more experience and depth to get it done more consistently on kickoff and kickoff return.

Intangibles

Nebraska has home-field advantage — always a good thing — and the morning kickoff suits NU’s body clock better because of morning practices. The Huskers won’t have all day to overthink it. Wisconsin has a huge psychological advantage, and both teams know it. NU has lost every which way — from the start, at the end — and won’t get over the mental hurdle until it wins a game in the series. The Huskers rebuff any notion of putting Wisconsin on a pedestal, which is fine, if a little odd. Nebraska needs to win — and prioritize — big games.

Key matchup: Nebraska’s front seven vs. Wisconsin’s run game

NU’s chances may very well come down to its ability to control the pace of the game. Wisconsin wants to hold the ball, unleash its defense for three downs, hustle back off the field, hold the ball some more, and basically pound a defense into submission. The best way NU escapes that is to control its fate and stuff the Badgers’ run game early and often. Wisconsin won’t be tricky. It’ll just be consistent and relentless.

Our take

It was quaint, wasn’t it, thinking Nebraska’s season could be defined by the physical test provided by Wisconsin. That NU would head into Saturday with a puncher’s chance at the Big Ten West title? Now the Huskers have no chance, already eliminated thanks to Purdue and Indiana losses. Time to play spoiler. Time to rally for the best win of the Scott Frost era. Look for the Huskers to play well, and perhaps even have a lead at some point. The Huskers will have some good counters to Wisconsin’s pressure defense, and may crack a big pass or two as a result. Ultimately, the Badgers’ run game — best in the Big Ten — is a little too much, and another reminder that, in this league of steak and cheese, nothing’s better than an offense that runs the ball well and stops it even better.

Our prediction: WISCONSIN 33, NEBRASKA 21

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