Yet another night game at Camp Randall Stadium, and yet another top-10 opponent awaits the Wisconsin Badgers.
No. 11 Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) welcome the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-0, 4-0) in what is a critical Big Ten West division matchup.
“I think it’s two really good programs,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said when asked this week about the young rivalry between the two programs. “If you just look at the games that have been played, I think you always have a natural rivalry when the games mean something, when something’s on the line. The number of good players involved with it adds to it, so I think there’s all of those reasons.
“I have a ton of respect for them and their program. I think the biggest thing is that the games have been important, and they’ve been good games.”
Here are three keys to a Wisconsin win on Saturday night.
Contain Nebraska’s run game and Tommy Armstrong
The Huskers’ offense is balanced, averaging more than 211 rushing yards and 236 passing yards per game. In four of their seven games, they’ve rushed for over 200 yards (292 vs. Fresno State, 228 vs. Oregon, 310 vs. Northwestern, 203 vs. Illinois).
Senior running back Terrell Newby has run for 511 yards and four touchdowns so far this season. There’s also the dual-threat quarterback in Armstrong, who’s second in the Big Ten in total offense (1,611 yards passing and 380 rushing).
The Badgers, however, have only allowed 102.9 yards per game on the ground, ninth in the nation. That was with inside linebacker Jack Cichy leading the team in tackles. With both Cichy (out for season with torn pectoral) and sophomore nose guard Olive Sagapolu (out for game with right arm) sidelined, Wisconsin will be challenged by a top-10 team trying to prove its undefeated mark isn’t some product of facing inferior competition.
Then again, the cliché “Next Man Up” mantra has worked for Justin Wilcox’s defense all year. Redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Ryan Connelly will once again have to plug a vital spot as he did against LSU in the season opener, when he recorded seven tackles in place of Chris Orr (right knee).
If the Badgers can continue to control the line of scrimmage, they will be able to hone in on the Huskers’ passing game, which is potent and returns senior Jordan Westerkamp. Outside linebackers T.J. Watt (team-leading seven sacks) and Vince Biegel could have the opportunity to make some plays, and unlike some missed opportunities against J.T. Barrett two weeks ago, they’ll have to capitalize.
The good news for the Badgers’ secondary comes with injury news. Junior cornerback Derrick Tindal’s name was wiped off the injury list after being initially ruled as questionable earlier in the week and fellow junior Natrell Jamerson (left leg) was upgraded to questionable from last week. If Jamerson can’t go, both junior Lubern Figaro and redshirt freshman Titus Booker held their own last week against Iowa.
Watch the turnovers
It’s been quite the makeover for the Huskers’ defense in 2015. Allowing over 290.5 yards per game through the air in 2015, this year’s squad is only allowing 218.4. They’ve allowed only 32 percent of opponents’ third-down conversions to move the chains, 23rd in the FBS.
On top of that, Nebraska has recorded 13 interceptions through seven games, good for fifth-most in the nation. The Huskers also rank 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense with a 108.74 rating.
If Nebraska holds against Wisconsin’s rushing attack, UW could be forced into 3rd-and-long situations. With that improved defense, redshirt quarterback Alex Hornibrook will have to be weary of an improved and apparent ball-hawking secondary.
Junior safety Kieron Williams leads the team in tackles (47) and interceptions (four), including two against Purdue. In that latter category, he is tied for the conference lead and ranked sixth in the country. There’s also junior cornerback Chris Jones, who has intercepted three passes, including a 33-yard pick-six on the road at Indiana. He also leads the team in pass breakups (seven).
Own the fourth quarter
Nebraska has only allowed 13 points this season while scoring 98 through seven games. That 85-point good guy is best in the nation.
On the other hand, Wisconsin has outscored its opponents, but only with a 37-27 margin.
Against Ohio State two weeks ago, the Badgers couldn’t close out a win after building a lead. If Saturday’s game is close, which it definitely could be late, the Badgers will need to land a knockout punch to defeat the Huskers, keep the Freedom Trophy and stay in the race for a Big Ten West title.
It should be another electric atmosphere at Camp Randall on Saturday night. Nebraska wants to prove it belongs in the conversation as among the nation’s best while many have said they haven’t played anyone. Wisconsin needs to stay in the division race, but will be without the leader of its defense’s “energy” in Cichy.
The loss of “Three-Sack Jack” will be felt, but Connelly has proved he can step up and perform. The Wisconsin running game has gained some steam as of late (236 yards vs. Ohio State, 167 yards vs. Iowa), but it will have to take on a squad allowing only 124.4 yards, fourth in the conference.
At home, with a lot on the line, the Badgers’ defense should contain Armstrong and the Huskers’ offense enough. The offense continues its progression, and UW does enough to get the W.