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Wisconsin vs. Nebraska preview: Badgers step up in weight class

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While it likely won't be another case of #WisconsinJustScoredAgain, the battle for the Big Ten West looks like it could be a classic.

Could wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp be the x-factor for Nebraska?
Could wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp be the x-factor for Nebraska?
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin and Nebraska have crossed paths three times since the Badgers welcomed Nebraska to the Big Ten, and while the series has been 2-1 in favor of the Badgers, the Cornhuskers have had nightmares of traveling outside of Nebraska. The Badgers put on a 48-17 beatdown in 2011, and we all remember 2012 when #WisconsinJustScoredAgain.

But that was two years ago; Ameer Abdullah had six touches that night. Melvin Gordon had nine. It's a new day, and like De La Soul says -- and I'm gonna misinterpret -- the stakes is high, as the winner moves beyond the logjam with the inside track on a Big Ten title game.

For Nebraska, there are two offensive questions. The obvious one is just how healthy Abdullah is going to be. Sure, Michigan State did bottle him the Huskers' star running back. But MSU isn't the best rush defense that Nebraska has played on a per-play basis. Miami is. Abdullah ran for 229 yards and two touchdowns and added a third on a reception. A healthy Abdullah will get some yardage even if the Badgers' defensive line is completely healthy. Konrad Zagzebski looks like he's going to go, which will help their cause.

The other question is just how well quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will handle the pressure, because there is an exploitable matchup for Nebraska through the air as wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp will get a slumping Sojourn Shelton. But that being said, Armstrong's been playing about as well as Wisconsin's passers in the Big Ten season.


COMP ATT % TD INT
Tommy Armstrong Jr. 71 135 52.6 4 6
McStavoy 65 120 54.1 5 7

(via cfbstats.com)

So while there is a matchup that can be exploited, the Badgers also have the No. 1 passing defense when it comes to completion percentage and Darius Hillary has a real chance to pull a third straight game where he shuts down a talented receiver in Kenny Bell. So their air powers might be limited.

Nebraska also has a secondary that has been able to stop the passing games of it opponents. Josh Mitchell is most definitely a shut-down corner, and Nebraska has a force that will likely be a top-three pick in next year's NFL Draft rushing the passer in Randy Gregory. The team of Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy is likely going to find the sledding in the passing game difficult. The tight ends and the backs are likely going to get more targets than normal to try and take what Nebraska gives them.

But Gordon is healthy, and Corey Clement is, too. Add that to a healthy offensive line, and there's no reason to think the Badgers won't be able to, at the very least, get something going on the ground. There will be bread and butter, and in the running game, McEvoy is more assist character than combo-breaker.

Maybe fullback Derek Watt can't give it a go this week, and linebackers Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach are helped greatly by the disruptive force that is defensive tackle Maliek Collins. We're not denying that the Badgers are going to face the best run defense they've seen to this point, but like Wisconsin, a part of the reason why Nebraska's so good per-game is that the Huskers have faced some offensive dregs along the way. They're stepping up just as much as we are.

Also, both sides have a special teams weakness to watch out for. For the Badgers, and their No. 114 ranking in terms of punt return yardage allowed (11.9 yards per), Nebraska presents De'Mornay Pierson-El, who has seven returns greater than 20 yards and two brought back for scores. For the Badgers, Nebraska kicker Drew Brown has missed four field goal attempts in his last five games. If it came down to it in clutch time, Bo Pelini may not have trust in him.

As it stands, this is a battle of two teams that generally match up well. The Badgers have the better defense, but the Huskers have the more exploitable matchup. And if Abdullah's healthy, Wisconsin is going to face a running back who is at least as good as Melvin Gordon. This feels like a game that's going to come down to the wire. Whomever wins, they're going to earn the inside track.