We are less than 24 hours away from the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers facing its toughest road test yet during the 2017 season, when they head to Lincoln to take on the Nebraska Huskers.
Wisconsin (4-0) will have to take on Nebraska (3-2) in an early Big Ten West division test (7 p.m., BTN). The Huskers are looking to continue momentum of two consecutive conference wins while facing top 10 teams in both the Badgers and Ohio State Buckeyes back-to-back in the coming weeks.
However, it appears they will be getting back some injured players for the primetime match-up.
To help break down Nebraska, we welcomed our friends at CornNation for a little Q&A earlier this week.
Nebraska has gone 2-0 after the stunning loss to Northern Illinois with wins against Illinois and Rutgers. Are there signs of the team rebounding and progressing, and in what key areas?
Andy Ketterson: There are a great many people who are acting as if victories against Rutgers and Illinois’ freshman team are somehow indications that the ship is righted and Riley is about to storm to nine wins and keep his job. Those two teams are a pretty solid bet to finish 13th and 14th in the B1G, and we looked anything but dominant. Our defense has looked better, but after Arkansas St. & Oregon, they have played three straight utterly inept offenses. And the defenses we’re about to face won’t resemble the pressure-free Illini squad that allowed Tanner to relax.
The people who believe a corner has been turned are in for some rough Saturdays. 5-7 may be the ceiling on this season.
Joe Canale: The defense is improving week by week. It’s clear that the players are adjusting to the new system and the coaches are figuring out where the players perform best. The offense is the big mystery. There has been no consistency and it seems like injuries are really contributing to keeping the offense grounded.
Jon Johnston: The fact that Tanner Lee did not throw pick sixes against Illinois is progress even if the Illini are horrible. He took a sack once and actually threw the ball away. If he continues in this trend, the Badgers are in really big trouble. He is an Elite NFL talent. We know this because we were told repeatedly during the offseason.
Head coach Mike Riley told reporters on Monday that running back Tre Bryant was "not going to be ready this week," while Mikale Wilbon sprained his ankle. Who could miss Saturday night's game, and how does Nebraska replace the production?
Andy: Mikale Wilbon (who should be OK) and Devine Ozigbo will continue to provide the 1-2 punch in the running game and personally, I believe there is no drop off there. And if they wanted Tre Bryant to be help consistently with the running game, maybe they shouldn’t have had a guy with knee issues carry it 51 times in just over 6 quarters. The O-line is kind of beat up, but the injured guys weren’t really blocking anyone anyway & [Michael] Decker is playing better than [Cole] Conrad, so that’s a push.
Defensively, Josh Kalu & Chris Jones are practicing again. If they can go 100 percent, that’s a big boost on that side of the ball. [Editor’s note: These answers were submitted early Thursday. Head coach Mike Riley said later that day that Jones and Kalu would play, as well as linebacker Marcus Newby with right tackle right tackle David Knevel available]
Joe: Questions like this are funny to me. I have zero idea of any roster moves the Huskers might make, not just because coaches are known to lie to the press, but I’m not even really press. That said, Bryant won’t play and true freshman Jaylen Bradley will get at least 10 carries.
Jon: Production! HAHAHAHAHAHA on your “production”. I spit on the ground in the face of “production”. Then I weep. Devine Ozigbo will run straight at your line over and over and over and by the fourth quarter he will turn those two-yard gains into three yards a carry! And it will be enough as long as our offense doesn’t give away free points to you, the evil opposition.
Offensively, Tanner Lee is completing only 54.7 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions on the season but performed well at Illinois (17-of-24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns). What has he shown early on this season, and where are the strengths and areas of concerns on this side of the ball?
Andy: He has shown opposing defenses the joy of running interceptions back for touchdowns.
Statistically, he’s matching his numbers at Tulane. He had time & did make good decisions in Champaign, but I doubt there will time for multiple checkdown Saturday - which is bad because he’s a statue in the pocket & doesn’t have very good instincts for knowing when he’s about to be lit up.
Running-wise, we’ve reverted the last couple of weeks to the wear-em-out in fourth quarter ground attack which was successful last season against mediocre competition, but not so much against top teams. If we fall behind early and have to go airborne, it’ll be a moot point, but if we can keep it close, who knows?
Joe: Lee is clearly a better pocket passer than Armstrong, but because of the inconsistent line play, we haven’t been able to see him just sit in there and sling it. He knows the offense and can make all the throws, but pressure has been his undoing. He actually reminds me of Armstrong with how often he throws off of his back foot and those throws almost always end in bad news for Nebraska.
Jon: Tanner Lee is a compassionate, charitable human being. He’s a free-point giving away SOB. He felt so bad about playing Northern Illinois he gave them two free touchdowns. Don’t know about you, but if Alex Hornibrook was giving away free points to the other team, he’d probably be playing for Wisconsin-Whitewater if at all. [editor’s note: shout out to Jon for knowing some Division III schools here in Wisconsin]
Defensively, the Huskers' defense under Bob Diaco has given up about 334 yards and 24.4 points per game. How has this unit improved, but where are some opportunities that Wisconsin could exploit?
Andy: Call me a pessimist, but the biggest improvement the defense got these last three weeks was in the schedule. After Arkansas St & Oregon, they’ve gotten a diet of Northern Illinois, Rutgers and Illinois—three teams whose skill players will NOT be flooding this spring’s NFL combine. Hopefully, that gave the D a chance to iron out some rough spots against personnel that didn’t punish mistakes with the kind of disaster we saw in the first half against Oregon.
Joe: I’m not going to tell you what Wisconsin can do to exploit Nebraska because I know Paul Chryst will read this and use the information against me. I think Wisconsin should just spike the ball every play.
Jon: They seem to know their assignments now, and Bob Diaco has learned that stating publicly that his game plan is to finish with “one more point” than the opposition is an incredibly stupid thing to say out loud at Nebraska. They even displayed a pass rush against Illinois (hey, take what you get, okay?). Opportunities to exploit…. Well, they’re the same damned opportunity you always exploit, get the run game going and the linebackers forget the tight end and that Fumagalli feller rips us to shreds.
Always got to ask about the specialists. How this year's squad looking?
Andy: Actually, pretty well. Brown’s kicking most of them out of the end zone, J.D. Spielman has become dangerous on kickoff returns, and Caleb Lightbourn is murdering punts this season after a rookie year full of the shanks. We’re still waiting for freshman-style De’Mornay Pierson-El to return, though.
Joe: Our kicking and punting is good. Our returning is bad (with the exception of one punt return and one kickoff return).
Jon: Our punting game has been consistent, high, and long. We appear to not give away free points in special teams, while scoring them ourselves. This part of the game is good.
What are your keys to the game, and your prediction?
Andy: If Illinois was an actual growing moment, then maybe we can get ourselves into a close game with you guys for the third straight season and find a way to come out on top late. However, if it was just a week off against the worst team in the Big Ten and their 10 true freshman starters, then this could be an ugly evening.
Given that the Huskers have not seemed very prepared coming out of the gate in their previous four games, I tend not to believe that they will come out swinging against the Big Ten West favorite. And playing from behind with shaky line against a perennial Top 20 defense would not be pretty. My mid-week pick is Wisconsin 33 Huskers 13.
Joe: Nebraska has not played well in the first half this season for the most part. If they fall behind to Wisconsin early, it could be a long day. Nebraska needs to win the time of possession battle, and the turnover battle to have a chance. I think Wisconsin has a big advantage with their offensive line, which I actually know nothing about but I assume is loaded with 340 pound behemoths. These games tend to be close (when the Badgers don’t run away with it). I never predict Husker scores, but I think there is so much on the line for Nebraska that we are going to perform well.
Jon: Nebraska wins because we don’t get behind right at the beginning of the game by giving away free points! Instead, we slug out a slug fest, both teams slugging each other for whatever yardage they can manage much like the Brits at the Battle of the Somme. Play action by both teams is stymied successfully by the other teams’ superior secondary. Nebraska wins a thriller on a last second field goal, 5-2!