The staff of Corn Nation, SB Nation’s Nebraska Cornhuskers site, joins us to preview Saturday night’s major clash between Nebraska and Wisconsin in Madison. Part 1 covered Nebraska’s offense and injury situation; Part 2 is below and covers the Huskers’ defense and predictions for the game. Both parts have been condensed and edited for clarity.
4. In four of the Huskers’ seven games, they’ve rushed for over 200 yards. Who and what’s been the key to their ground game, and who should Wisconsin look out for in their passing attack?
Greg: Give Terrell Newby the ball in the fourth quarter and watch him take over. I don’t know how or why he succeeds so much in that fourth frame, but he carried the load in the Illinois game and the coaches recognized that, feeding him in the final 15 of both the Indiana game and Purdue. As for passing, Stanley Morgan Jr. He’s been doing a little bit of everything the last few weeks.
Mike: I’ll go with left tackle Nick Gates, who’s all-conference worthy when healthy. He hurt his ankle against Indiana, and the offense started to tank a bit. Newby’s been Nebraska’s best I-back this season, though Devine Ozigbo has provided a bit more power prior to injuring his ankle a few weeks ago.
Keith: It surely is not the OL to look out for, as they have had a hard time blocking anyone the last two games to get an inside run game going. Newby gives you a better outside run game, and has been successful in Big Ten play, but Ozigbo is a smash-between-the-tackles kinda runner, if he is not hurt. In the passing attack, Alonzo Moore and Brandon Reilly can both destroy a DB with their speed.
Jon: You have to look out for all of our receivers, all of them. I ain’t even being facetious. Each one brings something different, and together they’re the best receiving corps in the nation. You got your Westerkamp hands, your Reilly speed, your Moore versatility, your Morgan Jr. allaroundedness, and when you cover those guys, well, you’ve forgotten about the tight end, aintcha?
Jill: Jon’s right. There are at least five receivers capable of taking it to the house on any play. The one he did not mention is De’Mornay Pierson-El, who was an All-American punt returner as a freshman but injured most of his sophomore year. He looked tentative early in the season (bad knee injuries do that) but is starting to play with more authority. The ability to rotate guys like that has been invaluable. They are really only limited by Tommy’s throwing ability and the fact he has been running for his life on way too many throws.
Ryan: Terrell Newby, Devine Ozigbo, Nick Gates, Tommy Armstrong and Cethan Carter are the linchpins in the rushing attack. The loss of Carter has hurt our blocking on the perimeter of the box, although both Sam Cotton and Trey Foster have been serviceable stand-ins. Newby has been the bellcow the past three games in the absence of Ozigbo and he's been the Mariano Rivera of this team in closing out games by finding a seam in the defense and churning out yardage to march down the field or grind the clock. Ozigbo is a bigger back who shows tremendous balance and is faster than you’d think for a bigger back. Armstrong’s mention is a no-brainer, as his mobility allows Nebraska to even up the numbers and force the defense to play 11-on-11 football.
Pat: Newby has gotten a lot of play lately, and he does look like a more decisive runner than in past years. But if a crease isn’t there, he still seems to sometimes dance around in hopes of finding one that will magically appear. He has yet to face a defense the caliber of Wisconsin, and I fear that he’ll revert back to his natural tendency. Ozigbo is the guy who will make space and finish runs. If he’s healthy, he’s who I want to see on the field the majority of Saturday. If he’s not, it’s up to Newby to continue being a more efficient runner. As far as receivers, it’s not just that there are a lot of them. It’s not just that there are a lot of good receivers. It’s that there’s a diversity of skill. Jordan Westerkamp, De’Mornay Pierson-El, Brandon Reilly and Stanley Morgan Jr. (sure, let’s throw Bryan Reimers in there, too) are all wildly different receivers in so many ways. For my money, the most complete is Morgan. He’s had to step up with the absences of Westerkamp and Reilly (along with easing Pierson-El back into the rotation) at certain points in the season.
5. Five Big Ten teams are holding their adversaries under 20 points per game, including Nebraska. Who’s standing out in the three levels of the defense, and how have they improved?
Greg: Chris Jones has been making some big plays in the secondary, but he’s not alone. Joshua Kalu has been a great cover guy. That leaves Kieron Williams and Nate Gerry at safety. I don’t want to jinx this group, but I think they’re as talented a defensive secondary as a group as Nebraska has seen in a while. I love linebacker Dedrick Young II. He was a true freshman last year and earned a starting spot. He has great speed and really flies to the ball. Up front, Kevin Maurice has really shined in a front four that replaced everyone.
Mike: Up front, it’s defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun, who’s drawing no end of attention. The last two weeks, linebacker Josh Banderas has really strung together his most consistent action in his four-year, on-and-off career.
Keith: Kevin Maurice has been getting a ton of pressure up front at the DT spot, while lately Banderas has been cleaning things up in the second level. The entire secondary is very good, with Gerry looking like an All-American this year.
Jill: The best mustache in the conference is Ross Dzuris, hands down. He has been surprisingly effective at defensive end. I expected Akinmoladun to be the breakout star, but the change in d-line coach this season has been great for Ross. Carlos Davis is a redshirt freshman who is seeing more playing time and for good reason. As far as linebackers, they are making plays more consistently than early in the season. I’ll mention one others have not yet in Marcus Newby. He’s been showing some pass-rush chops recently. As far as the secondary, beware the safeties especially. Both Williams (Aaron and Kieron) have been fun to watch and Nate Gerry is a hammer. The corners have been playing really well too outside of the first half vs. Purdue.
Ryan: The front four play with good technique and energy even though they’re a bit limited athletically. Carlos Davis is a guy who’s going to be a big name in the conference by the end of his career and he's only a RS freshmen. Ross Dzuris, our sack leader, is the textbook gym rat who relies on technique to overcome any athletic deficiencies that he may have. At the second level, Josh Banderas has been on a tear the past few games in run support and Diedrick Young and Michael Rose-Ivey have been playing solidly. I do have to echo what Jill said about Marcus Newby—he’s been emerging as a pass-rush threat the past couple of games and he played the game of his life last year against Wisconsin with multiple PBU’s in coverage on the Wisconsin TE’s. In the secondary, Nate Gerry has been playing extremely well and Kieron Williams has been a surprise this year with his timely interceptions and coverage skills, but the real hombre in the secondary is Chris Jones, who looks every bit the part of an NFL cornerback. Jones can really do it all with great press-man coverage, off-coverage, and has baited QB’s into making a throw that they shouldn't in trap coverage.
Pat: Freedom puts up no numbers, but he’s consistently drawing a lot of attention from his left end spot. If he could also draw a yellow flag sometime soon, that’d be great, as he appears to be the most consistently held player on a play-to-play basis. There aren’t really any true “stars” on this defense. There are some really, really solid players, and all of the units (front four, linebackers, secondary) are fundamentally improved.
6. What are the keys to the game for Nebraska, and what’s your prediction?
Greg: Control the clock and the turnover battle. Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 22.
Mike: Run the ball. Which is going to be a struggle against the Badgers. Wiscy 28, Huskers 13.
Keith: Make Wisconsin pass, third-down conversions, and run between the tackles. Wisconsin 35, Nebraska 10.
Jon: Avoid the deep-fried cheese curds, because you know damned well it takes a while for your system to acclimate to that crap, otherwise it just stops you up and slows you down better than a good defensive line. Keys for Nebraska… well, if this game had a band name, it would be, “Danny and the Screens”, ‘cause the way the Huskers will get their points on offense is by screening and drawing and misdirecting your defense to its death.
Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 24 on a last-second field goal by Drew Brown.
Jill: If Nebraska is right with the Badgers entering the fourth quarter, I hope to see one of their now-patented, game-sucking drives that puts up a score and leaves the opponent wondering what hit them. I feel good in that scenario. If it comes down to a two-minute drill and Nebraska has to sling it down the field for the win, I feel pretty good about that, too. But if the Badgers force the Huskers to the air early and often, it is only a matter of time before “bad” Tommy shows up (it could be the second quarter or it could be next week). I’m going to pick the Huskers in a close one because I’m a homer (17-13) but if you force me to be honest, I think the Badgers can make a mistake or two more than Nebraska and still win.
Ryan: Nebraska has to play a damn clean game by avoiding turnovers and drive-killing or drive-extending penalties. The Husker offense will need to work the flanks of the Badger defense in the screen and fly sweep game. Along with death and taxes, you can pretty much bank on Jordan Westerkamp getting open for a much-needed first down in a crucial juncture of the game. Defensively, it really comes down to the defensive line getting off of blocks and corralling Corey Clement, forcing Wisconsin to become one-dimensional. I’m going to go with Nebraska 26, Wisconsin 14, on the foot of four Drew Brown FG’s, a defensive score, and the return of the punt return wizard, DPE with a house call.
Pat: This is about to get really convoluted. I think Ohio State is the most talented team in the Big Ten, but for underdogs looking for a victory, the Buckeyes are the more vulnerable team (as evidenced last week). And Nebraska is a true underdog in this game. Not just because Vegas says so, but because the results on the field have said so. That said, I think Wisconsin is a better matchup for Nebraska than the Buckeyes will be in a week. The Huskers don’t have a crazy good defense. A solid one, yes, but nothing that strikes heart in the fear of men. One that has the potential to be exposed by an offense with top-flight talent. By virtue of Wisconsin’s style of play (incredible defense, spotty offense), it should be a low-scoring affair, which should give the Huskers a chance. And if there’s a chance late in the game, I’ll always take Tommy Armstrong. Huskers 21, Badgers 20.