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Roundtable: Linebackers shine, special teams inconsistent in Wisconsin’s win vs. Nebraska

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A group reflection on a tough win in Madison.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to another installment of our B5Q roundtable sessions, where the points don’t count and we always fire Drew Hamm.

In all honesty, we’re thinking one Jon Beidelschies may take Drew’s place for his [insert fire emoji] take on Wisconsin’s white facemasks last week (Jake’s note: Really, Jon? REALLY?).

The No. 11 Badgers outlasted the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers 23-17 on Saturday night in an overtime thriller at Camp Randall Stadium that had many people’s hearts in their chests and consuming either antacids, some form of alcohol or a combination of the two.

Three of our writers decided to take some time out of their weekends to offer their analysis on the Badgers’ third win over a top-10 opponent this season.

The Good: What went well for Wisconsin?

Owen Riese: They finally found a way to grind out a close game against a good team. While the defense looked (slightly) vulnerable at times, and the offense was far from smooth, they gutted it out, and found a way to come out with a W in a big-time environment. This has to be a staple win for Paul Chryst’s short tenure here so far.

Jon Beidelschies: God bless the linebacking corps. They have been plug-and-play all year with Chris Orr and Jack Cichy missing time. When T.J. Watt went down briefly in the second half, you could feel the collective tension in the online Wisconsin diaspora. The depth in that unit is unbelievable—as Kevin mentions below, Leon Jacobs and Ryan Connelly came up big. Jacobs was a fullback at the start of the fall. This was a really good win, despite some terrifying play on the offensive side of the ball and that is almost entirely to the credit of defense.

Kevin O’Connell: The secondary was superb on Saturday. Sojourn Shelton probably had his best game of the year, finishing with two pass breakups and an impressive interception in the first quarter. Derrick Tindal returned from his injury in a big way, also registering two pass breakups, one where he was left on an island and made a great play on the ball. And of course D’Cota Dixon was huge for Wisconsin, making the winning play on fourth down in overtime and picking off Tommy Armstrong in the second quarter with help from a batted pass. With Armstrong’s mobility and arm strength, Nebraska had plenty of shots down field but just couldn’t break off any big plays (besides a 36-yard catch by Jordan Westerkamp) thanks to the play of the secondary. The front seven was solid once again (Jacobs and Connelly were everywhere) but this was a game where Shelton and co. really shined and reminded you how complete of a defensive unit the Badgers have.

The Bad: Where do you see areas for improvement?

Owen: Offense. Honestly, in almost every respect. The quarterback play has been subpar, and that's putting it nicely. The only above average throw was to Troy Fumagalli on the first touchdown drive. The running game was mostly stale, which goes to the offensive line. While they kept more continuity on the line than in a while, they still struggled to adapt to the speed of the Nebraska front. They have to continue to improve.

Jon: Whew. Well, even taking into account the really tough teams the Badgers have played the past few weeks, it’s pretty clear that something is amiss on the offensive side of the ball. As Owen mentions above, the running game is really hit or miss. It seems particularly acute when Alex Hornibrook is in for reasons that remain unclear. The specialist play was very rough against the Cornhuskers. It’s easy to forget that Anthony Lotti is a true freshman, but his shank late in the first half could have really hurt. The defense is tough but the other units have to take some of the pressure off.

Kevin: While the quarterback play is anything but solidified, Wisconsin needs to figure out the kicking situation. In last week’s roundtable, I wrote how I was worried Andrew Endicott would eventually cost the Badgers a game and it nearly happened against Nebraska. Endicott missed a potential game-winning 45-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter and missed an extra point in overtime that gave the Cornhuskers a chance for a walk-off win if it wasn’t for the defense. Unfortunately, the Badgers may have to just live with the kicking woes as redshirt freshman Zach Hintze is the only other healthy kicker on the roster.

Game Ball: Spread the love around—which Badgers deserve it?

Owen: Dare Ogunbowale, Jacobs, Connelly, Shelton and Dixon. All had big performances in a big game. The secondary made up for a lack of pass rush last night in a big way. They're gonna need to be that good next week in Evanston.

Jon: Owen got greedy and took the whole roster. I wholeheartedly co-sign on his choice. Kudos to the front seven—they were tipping passes all day long, including an Alec James tip that Dixon snared and they generally kept Nebraska in check all day.

Kevin: It has to be Ogunbowale. What a pleasant surprise the former walk-on continues to be at running back for the Badgers. After a solid 2015 season, Ogunbowale has established himself as one of Wisconsin’s best and most reliable weapons this year. The former defensive back finished with 120 rushing yards on only 11 carries, including the game-winning touchdown in overtime. The former walk-on has a knack for finding open space, can catch the ball out of the backfield and has been the perfect compliment to Corey Clement in Chryst’s offense.

Up Next: Northwestern. Early keys to the game in that Bermuda Triangle-sized void of Wisconsin prosperity known as Evanston?

Owen: Pass rushing has to improve, Clayton Thorson is improving as a passer and the Badgers have to make him uncomfortable. I think it's also important that the Badgers continue to run the ball. Even with the issues at quarterback, do what you do, don't try to “fix” the throwing game by forcing the issue. Dance with who brung ya.

Jon: I will be writing more extensively on the Evanston-is-a-pit-of-despair topic in my column this week. (Editor’s note: He already did. It’s linked above. And right here. Read at your own peril.) Hopefully getting away from top-10 foes will create a little more breathing space, but the Wildcats have righted the ship of late. As I’ve said all year, the Badgers are a really good team. If they are able to execute, they should be able to walk out of Ryan Field with a win.

Kevin: Uncharacteristically, Northwestern looks more like a Big 12 team then it does the smashmouth, run-first team they usually trot out. Thorson has had over 30 pass attempts in seven of eight games and thrown for almost 2,000 yards on the year, so I expect the Wildcats to test Wisconsin’s secondary much like Nebraska did over the weekend. This game will be a good challenge for the defense as they face an offensive unit that put up 38 and 54 points in road games at Iowa and Michigan State, respectively, earlier in the month. The Badgers are a better all-around team and I expect them to take care of business, but don’t be surprised if both teams are able to put up some points in Evanston.