September 30, 2011

Defense key for both Wisconsin, Nebraska

Once again, Nebraska gets a first-hand view of the "jump around" experience. But this one doesn't reference conference realignment.

In the first clash of two top-10 teams at the stadium since 1962, the eighth-ranked Huskers face seventh-ranked Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium, where the student section quite literally jumps around between the third and fourth quarters - a tradition that started in 1998.

Yet, an emerging tradition - Big Ten interdivisional play - is obviously of higher interest and importance in this historic matchup.

While division play is a new concept at Wisconsin, it's old hat for Nebraska, which enters its first Big Ten conference game after a 15-season run in the Big 12. But the Huskers are hoping for different results. In the previous five seasons, Nebraska was a power in the Big 12 North but was 0-6 against top-10 opponents from the South.

"Everybody on the team, we have something to prove," Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez said. "We're ready to shock the world."

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of that statement is that anybody would be shocked at the prospect of a Huskers victory in Madison.

True, Nebraska hasn't appeared overpowering in a 4-0 start that includes victories over Chattanooga and Wyoming. But the same can be said for Wisconsin, which hasn't beaten a team with a winning record.

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Clearly, this is a major test for both teams. And for Nebraska to pass it, the Huskers' defense must hold up against Wisconsin's powerful offensive line and running game while also keeping Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson in check.

"When you talk about these big games, you always talk about the offensive line," Wisconsin center Peter Konz said. "Every game starts here, but when you play a very good team, you have to be able to have your line control their line.

"Otherwise, you don't have very much."

Few teams can ever hope to control Wisconsin's perennially punishing offensive line, which has paved the way for tailbacks Montee Ball and James White to have rushed for a combined 669 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Nebraska can counter with speedy linebackers and a solid defensive front that will be boosted by the return of All-America tackle Jared Crick, who sat out last week's victory at Wyoming with an injury.

Still, that's only half the problem for the Huskers. The arrival of Wilson, formerly an All-ACC quarterback who transferred in from North Carolina State, has added a dangerous passing element to the Badgers' offense.

He has thrown for 1,136 yards to rank ninth in the nation, and the Huskers acknowledge that it's vital to pressure him.

"He's had a clean pocket as far as I'm concerned," Nebraska defensive line coach John Papuchis said. "I haven't seen very many times when people have gotten much pressure on him. If he has that kind of time on Saturday he's going to be able to get comfortable in the pocket. Our job is to obviously disrupt that."

Wisconsin's defense has to worry about containing Nebraska's Martinez, though the Badgers would rather he stay in the pocket. Instead, Martinez provides a threat with his great running ability. He leads the Huskers with 471 yards, and he and tailback Rex Burkhead have combined for 894 yards and 14 touchdowns.

"I think he's right in the caliber of [Michigan's] Denard Robinson and [former Ohio State quarterback] Terrelle Pryor with how fast he is, and he cuts extremely well, too," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "He's probably one of the best running quarterbacks I've seen on film in college, and he's going to give a real test to our defense."

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Wisconsin run offense vs. Nebraska run defense: As usual, Wisconsin has a big, strong line and fast, powerful tailbacks behind it. Although Montee Ball and James White share the load, both have rushed for more than 300 yards and are ranked among the top five in the Big Ten in rushing. QB Russell Wilson can take off, too. He's rushed for 108 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown. So far, Nebraska's front hasn't shown the dominance of previous seasons. DT Jared Crick can be a force. He's back in the lineup after sitting out last week's game because of injury. LB Lavonte David has great speed and leads the team with 38 tackles. EDGE: Wisconsin

Wisconsin pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense: Wilson has passed for more than 340 yards and three touchdowns in each of the Badgers' past two games. He's thrown 11 touchdown passes and only one interception, but hasn't faced a high-level defense yet. Five players have more than 100 receiving yards, led by WR Nick Toon, who has 21 catches for 353 yards and five touchdowns. The line has allowed four sacks. Nebraska's pass defense has been shaky at times and has given up eight touchdown passes, but the Huskers are boosted by the return of star CB Alfonzo Dennard, who missed the first three games because of a leg injury. They've posted a pedestrian six sacks, and E Cameron Meredith has three of them. Crick has just one sack this season, but has 20 in his career. Edge: Wisconsin

Nebraska run offense vs. Wisconsin run defense: The Huskers are eighth in the nation in rushing offense. They have rushed for more than 200 yards in all four games. QB Taylor Martinez hit triple digits in the first two games, and TB Rex Burkhead has done it in the past two. They both have carried 63 times and scored seven touchdowns. Martinez has rushed for 421 yards, Burkhead 420. Wisconsin's defense still has to prove itself against the run. So far, the Badgers' most impressive performance was limiting Northern Illinois to 64 rushing yards. The Badgers have forced opponents to go three-and-out on 17 of 45 possessions and have allowed just one rushing touchdown. LB Chris Borland leads with 35 tackles, with five resulting in lost yardage. EDGE: Nebraska

Nebraska pass offense vs. Wisconsin run defense: With the exception of the Bill Callahan era (error?), passing really hasn't been Nebraska's forte. The Huskers are 106th nationally in passing offense and have thrown for 200 yards in a game just once this season. But the Huskers do have big-play ability. Six players have caught passes that have covered between 25 and 53 yards, and WRs Kyler Reed and Kenny Bell average more than 24 yards per catch. Wisconsin has held three of four opponents to fewer than 175 passing yards. The Badgers are 10th in pass defense. They suffered a setback with the loss of CB Devin Smith to a foot injury, but junior Marcus Cromartie has filled in nicely. The Badgers have just two interceptions, but have 10 sacks; E David Gilbert has three. EDGE: Wisconsin

Nebraska special teams vs. Wisconsin special teams: Nebraska junior Brett Maher is off to such an outstanding start he could be a two-position All-American if he continues as his current pace. He's converted 8-of-9 field-goal attempts. His only miss was from 50 yards and he's also converted from that range. Maher also is averaging 49 yards on 16 punts and has not had one returned yet. Backup TB Ameer Abdullah also is a dual threat. He's averaging 12.8 yards on punt returns and 42.5 on kickoff returns, which includes a 100-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Wisconsin K Kyle French is 2-for-4 on field-goal attempts. He's missed twice from 50 yards and his longest conversion is from 29. P Brad Nortman is averaging 43.3 yards. Jared Abbrederis is averaging 16.8 yards on punt returns to rank 10th in the country. The Badgers have sound coverage teams, too. EDGE: Nebraska

Nebraska coaches vs. Wisconsin coaches: The Badgers have posted at least nine victories in four of the five previous seasons under coach Bret Bielema. This season, they appear on their way to a fourth season of double-digit victories in that span. The Badgers have averaged 31.9 points in the past five seasons under offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Bo Pelini has led Nebraska back to national prominence in three seasons, but has yet to put the Huskers back among the nation's elite. The Huskers are seeking a third consecutive 10-win season under the defense-minded coach. Edge: Wisconsin

X-factor: Nebraska's team speed bears watching. The Big Ten - perhaps unfairly - is portrayed as a conference of powerful plodders. Certainly, the Badgers do have some players with breakaway ability, but they must prove they can match the Huskers' overall speed.

Wisconsin will win if: The Badgers want to control the line of scrimmage with their big offensive line and wear down opponents with the running game. Consistent success with the run will make Wilson a defensive afterthought, which makes him even more dangerous. The Badgers' defense must limit big plays by Martinez.

Nebraska will win if: The Huskers' defensive front seven is key. They must slow Wisconsin's running game and also apply heavy pressure on Wilson. This is the first game this year in which Crick, David and Dennard will be on the field at the same time. Martinez and Burkhead must make big plays in the running game, but Martinez will have to have success passing, too.


Olin Buchanan: Wisconsin 34, Nebraska 24
Tom Dienhart: Wisconsin 29, Nebraska 24
David Fox: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 17
Mike Huguenin: Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 24
Steve Megargee: Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 21

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at

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