On Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, the 5-2 and 11th-ranked (both polls) Wisconsin Badgers will be taking on their fifth top 10-ranked opponent this season, as they will host the 7-0 Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are ranked No. 7 by the Associated Press and No. 6 by the Coaches poll.
The Badgers have split the four games that they have played against top 10-ranked opponents so far this year. Wisconsin beat LSU (16-14) and Michigan State (30-6), but narrowly lost to both Michigan (14-7) and Ohio State (30-23 in OT).
Last week, before the Badgers traveled to Iowa and beat the Hawkeyes 17-9, I asked NFL scout Chris Landry about whether or not Wisconsin could run the table for the rest of their schedule and win the B1G West.
“I think now that they are getting into the meat of their schedule,” Landry said. “They have obviously played the two toughest teams [Michigan and Ohio State] already. I think they will fare pretty well.
“I think one of the best coaching jobs done all year has been done by Paul Chryst. They don’t have the playmakers on offense, but they are finding a way to get it done. They have to be careful this week against Iowa and then Nebraska. That will determine it.
“They’ll beat Northwester, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. But these next two weeks are going to determine it. Ohio State and Michigan, no issue there losing to those two teams, that are better than them, but as you mentioned, they [Wisconsin] played very well.
“I think these next two weeks at Iowa and then Nebraska at home will tell the story obviously in the [B1G] West. That will determine who will win it. But I like them. I think this defense is really good. Their linebackers are very long and athletic and are playing well.”
The game between the Badgers and Huskers looks to be a defensive battle. Wisconsin is ranked No. 9 in total defense, while Nebraska is ranked No. 22 in total defense.
The Badgers will be without one of their best defensive players for the rest of the season though, as inside linebacker Jack Cichy tore a pectoral muscle against Iowa last week.
Cichy will be tough to replace, as he led Wisconsin in tackles (60), forced fumbles (two) and was second in tackles for a loss (7½).
The two players who will be called on to play in place of Cichy are Ryan Connelly and Leon Jacobs.
The other inside linebacker is T.J. Edwards, who is second on the team with 44 tackles.
As good as the Badgers have been on the inside at linebacker, T.J. Watt has excelled at outside linebacker (seven sacks) this season, plus his talented bookend at the other OLB spot, Vince Biegel, returned last week against Iowa after missing a couple of games due to a broken foot.
The Wisconsin defense will be attempting to contain quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who has thrown 11 touchdown passes versus five interceptions for 1,611 yards.
Armstrong also leads the Huskers in rushing with 380 yards and six touchdowns.
Alex Hornibrook (5-6-877) will start at quarterback for the Badgers, but Bart Houston (3-2-586) will also get some snaps.
Running back Corey Clement leads the Badgers in rushing with 617 yards and six touchdowns, while Jazz Peavy leads Wisconsin in receiving with 24 catches for 383 yards and three scores.
Peavy has also run for 127 yards when the Badgers utilize the jet sweep.
I didn’t have an opportunity to talk with Landry this week, but I did check out his scouting preview of the Nebraska-Wisconsin matchup on his great website.
This is how Landry sees this game:
The defensive front might not be full of household superstars, but it’s been one of the biggest keys to the season. Expected to be a major weakness, considering the key personnel losses and the lack of depth, the Husker D line has been terrific, especially against the run. The Oregon attack might have worked, but the front seven has been eating up just about everything else, with no one other than the Ducks taking off for more than 140 yards on the ground. Oregon ran for five scores, but even though the Huskers faced Wyoming’s Brian Hill, Indiana’s Devine Redding, and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, they’ve only allowed four touchdown runs in the other six games.
Offensively, Tommy Armstrong continues to be solid. He might not be spectacular, but he’s been a rock throwing for 200 yards or more in every game but the opener against Fresno State – he wasn’t needed – while still doing a nice job of taking off when needed.
But he’s not going to run much against this Badger front seven – running quarterbacks don’t fly against the group. However, as Michigan showed, you beat Wisconsin by going vertical and testing the secondary time and again to open up everything else.
There’s a good chance that top target Jordan Westerkamp will be back after missing the last two games with a back problem. If he’s okay, all of a sudden the Huskers have their all-star home run hitter back after averaging close to 18 yards per catch over the first five games.
Nebraska’s offense is okay, but it’s just not good enough.
Even with Westerkamp back, this isn’t an explosive attack, playing right into Wisconsin’s hands.
The line is doing a solid job overall, and the running game has been effective, but the team lives on keeping the chains moving and controlling the time of possession and tempo. That’s not going to happen against this defense.
The Badger D is out of this world on third downs, allowing offenses to convert just 25% of their chances. The only offense to hit more than 31% of their tries was Ohio State, and it struggled way too much throughout the first half. Nebraska won’t get enough manageable third down situations and should have to press.
Defensively, yeah, the Huskers have been terrific against the run, but this is a different Wisconsin offense after the week off before the Ohio State game. All of a sudden, Corey Clement is looking a half-step quicker and a whole lot stronger in a workhorse mode, carrying the ball 70 times for 298 yards and a score – and almost another, before he fumbled the ball against Iowa reaching out for the goal line – over the last two weeks.
Can the Badgers close this game out. They got away with missed kicks and mistakes inside the red zone, while Nebraska defense has done a solid job when its back is against the wall – it’s red zone D has been good enough.
This is the type of Husker team that seems to know how to figure it out. It was able to rev it up in a shootout against Oregon, and it was able to grind it down in wins over Northwestern and Indiana. It’s good enough to keep this close, but it’ll stall on too many key drives.
Wisconsin will get the win after the defense clamps down in the second half, but both teams will run the clock and each offense should be relatively error free.
This should be a good, hard-nosed Big Ten game with the Badgers finally breathing easily in the fourth quarter, setting up a showdown for the West title at Northwestern next week.
———————–Wisconsin 27, Nebraska 17————————-