After a successful trip to West Lafayette, the Wisconsin Badgers head into the final stretch of the season still controlling their own destiny. Currently tied atop the Big Ten West standings with a 4-1 conference record (7-2 overall), Wisconsin is slated to face three of the West division's top teams -- Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota -- in their final three regular season games. If the Badgers can win all three of those matchups, they will be guaranteed a trip to the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 6.
This week, the Badgers will face their toughest in-conference opponent of the season as they host the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT. The Cornhuskers are 8-1 on the season (4-1 in the Big Ten) and currently sit at No. 11 in this week's latest AP poll. Their lone loss of the season came in East Lansing on Oct. 4, when Michigan State blew a 27-3 fourth quarter lead, but managed to hold on and defeat Nebraska 27-22. Other than that loss, the Cornhuskers have had little trouble cruising through an incredibly weak schedule, with their only scare coming early in the second week of the season against McNeese State -- when the Huskers were bailed out by an incredible play by Ameer Abdullah late in the game (shown in the video below if you haven't seen it already).
Saturday's trip to Madison will be Nebraska's toughest remaining obstacle this season. The Cornhuskers will certainly be out for revenge after the 70-31 trouncing they suffered the last time they faced the Badgers in the 2012 Big Ten Championship. But before Nebraska attempts to end Wisconsin's four game winning streak and put themselves in the driver's seat in the Big Ten West division, here are three things to know about the Cornhuskers.
They run the ball exceptionally well
The Big Ten's two top rushing offenses will collide at Camp Randall on Saturday. And for every one person that calls Melvin Gordon the best running back in the Big Ten, there's someone else who will argue in favor of Abdullah.
At 5'9, 199 lbs., Abdullah is an explosive back who is able to wreck havoc on opposing secondaries in the open field. So far in 2014, the senior running back from Homewood, Alabama has given everyone plenty to talk about, racking up 1,250 yards (No. 5 in the country) and 17 touchdowns (No. 3) in the Cornhuskers' first nine games.
Gordon and Abdullah are very similar in that both tailbacks were viewed as potential heisman candidates heading into the season and, as of right now, neither has disappointed. Nebraska and Wisconsin's offenses are dependent upon their star backs, both have been crucial to their teams' success this season as they've managed to accumulate ridiculous stats week after week. Here's a comparison between the two tailbacks' rushing numbers in their first nine games this season.
|Game 1||140 yards (1 TD) @ LSU||232 yards (1 TD) vs. FAU|
|Game 2||38 yards (0 TD) vs. Western Illinois||54 yards (1 TD) vs. McNeese State|
|Game 3||253 yards (5 TD) vs. Bowling Green||110 yards (1 TD) @ Fresno State|
|Game 4||181 yards (2 TD) vs. South Florida||229 yards (1 TD) vs. Miami|
|Game 5||259 yards (1 TD) @ Northwestern||208 yards (3 TD) vs. Illinois|
|Game 6||175 yards (4 TD) vs. Illinois||45 yards (2 TD) @ Michigan State|
|Game 7||122 yards (3 TD) vs. Maryland||146 yards (4 TD) @ Northwestern|
|Game 8||128 yards (2 TD) @ Rutgers||225 yards (3 TD) vs. Rutgers|
|Game 9||205 yards (1 TD) @ Purdue||1 yard (0 TD) vs. Purdue|
|TOTAL||1,501 yards (19 TD)||1,250 yards (17 TD)|
As you can see, Gordon and Abdullah have gone back and forth each week, constantly one-upping each other with astronomical numbers. Two weeks ago, in Nebraska's most recent game against Purdue, Abdullah sprained his left MCL and had to leave the game; he never returned as the Cornhuskers were able to roll to a 35-14 win. During a press conference on Monday, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini told reporters that, as of right now, Abdullah's status for Saturday's game is still questionable.
"We'll see on Saturday, but I anticipate him playing," Pelini said. "I don't know how it's going to play out. We go a little bit off of how he's feeling," he mentioned later on.
If Abdullah is unable to go at full strength, it would be a major blow to the Nebraska offense. The Badgers' run defense is currently ranked fifth best in the country (second in the Big Ten), averaging 94.3 yards per game on the ground and 2.9 yards per carry. If Abdullah is out or limited in Saturday's game, it will make the task of stopping the Cornhuskers' rushing attack much easier for the Badgers' defense.
The offense struggled the last time they played an elite defense
In Nebraska's only loss of the season, the Huskers traveled to a hostile environment and were stifled by a tough defense for the majority of the game, losing to the Michigan State Spartans 27-22. They face a similar situation heading into this week's matchup against Wisconsin. And I expect the Cornhuskers' trip to Madison to be just as difficult as their trip to East Lansing in October was.
Michigan State was able to slow down the Nebraska rushing attack and cause turnovers throughout the entire game. The Cornhuskers rushed for just 47 yards on 37 attempts (1.3 yards per rush), while also turning the ball over four times to the Spartans (two interceptions and two fumble recoveries), including a crucial fumble that was lost by Abdullah on the Spartans' 8-yard line (1:46 in the video below).
It seems almost comical now to call the Michigan State defense "elite" after they let up seven touchdowns en route to a 49-37 loss on national television to Ohio State, but with the exception of last week's embarrassment against the Buckeyes, the Spartans' defense has proven to be one of the most consistent units in the country. And yet so far this season, Wisconsin has managed to eclipse Michigan State's numbers on defense. Dave Aranda's defense is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, allowing a mere 251 yards and 14.3 points per game.
However, Abdullah isn't the only weapon that the Badger defense will have to worry about. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr will be determined to show Tanner McEvoy and the Badgers what a true dual-threat quarterback looks like. Armstrong is second in the Big Ten in total offense this year with 2,398 total yards (1,827 passing, 571 rushing), trailing only Ohio State's J.T. Barrett . Despite his relatively small size for a mobile quarterback (6'1, 220 lbs.), Armstrong has proven that he's not afraid to make plays on his feet this season, as he currently averages 10 rushing attempts per game.
Armstrong also possesses two of the Big Ten's most consistent receivers in Jordan Westerkamp and Kenny Bell. Both receivers have managed to catch a pass in every game this season. Both Westerkamp and Bell have had a major impact on the Nebraska passing game this season, with Bell catching 34 passes for 577 yards and two touchdowns, while Westerkamp has recorded 33 catches for 600 yards and four touchdowns. The presence of two threats at receiver, along with Abdullah's ability to catch passes could force Aranda to draw up some different coverage packages in the secondary.
In the Cornhuskers' previous two games against Rutgers and Purdue, Armstrong, like McEvoy, has struggled with his accuracy. Two weeks ago against Purdue, Armstrong had his worst outing of the season -- going just 8-for-21, while throwing for only 118 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. A trip to face the nation's No. 1 rated defense may not be the best cure for Armstrong's recent struggles. If the Badgers' defense plays at the elite level that they've been playing at for the last three weeks, it could potentially be a long day for Armstrong in Madison.
Who can stop the run on defense?
Between the two teams, Wisconsin's defense has garnered much more attention than Nebraska's. While the Badgers' unit has managed to shut down opposing offenses -- especially of late -- the Cornhuskers' defense has also been consistent to this point, and they're continuing to improve as the season progresses.
The key for the Nebraska defense will be slowing down Gordon in the backfield. Nebraska has had some experience dealing with elite running backs this season. When the Cornhuskers hosted the Miami Hurricane on September 20, the Nebraska defense was able to keep Miami running back Duke Johnson relatively bottled up; as Johnson ran for 93 yards and one touchdown on 18 attempts, while also adding 84 receiving yards on five catches in a 41-31 loss to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers will look to carry that performance over, as they attempt to become the first team since Western Illinois to hold Gordon under 100 rushing yards.
The biggest factors on the Cornhusker defense that will contribute to slowing down the Badgers' rushing attack will be the performances by Zaire Anderson, Randy Gregory, and Maliek Collins.
Anderson currently leads the Cornhuskers with 63 total tackles. At 5'11, 220 lbs., this senior linebacker has a nose for the ball and he'll need to continue his strong play on Saturday if Nebraska hopes to contain Gordon.
On the defensive line, Gregory proves to be a difficult blocking assignment for the Badgers. The junior defensive end stands at 6'6, 240 lbs. and has caught plenty of attention from NFL scouts due to his size and impressive play during his time in Lincoln. Last season, Gregory earned first team All-Big Ten honors, this year he leads the team in sacks (with 5.5) and has recorded 37 total tackles. If he decides to leave early for the draft, Gregory has been projected to go as early as No. 2 in the 2015 NFL Draft (per SI.com).
Also on the line, at defensive tackle, is Collins. During his press conference on Monday, Pelini compared Collins to Glenn Dorsey when he was at LSU, referring to Collins as "the total package". At 6'2, 300 lbs., Collins is a force at defensive tackle, tallying 29 total tackles as well as a team-high 7 tackles for a loss. Against the Badgers, Collins could be a key to stopping runs up the middle.
Pelini acknowledged the importance of slowing down the Badgers' rushing attack in Monday's press conference and discussed some keys he felt the Cornhuskers' defense needed to focus on in order to come out of Madison with a victory.
"We need to execute our game plan. We have to tackle well. They have good backs. It's going to come down to being physical up front, guys being disciplined and playing their gaps, and putting their face on somebody and tackling them when you get there. It comes down to execution. The team that executes the best will win the football game. No question about it."