Wisconsin was able to maintain their stranglehold of the Freedom Trophy with a 37-21 victory. The No. 13. Wisconsin Badgers (8-2 overall, 5-2 B1G) have now won all six match ups since the establishment of the trophy over the Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-6 overall, 2-5 B1G).
In this weekly installment, here are three items that I think we learned about the Badgers after their game Saturday.
Aron Cruickshank entered Saturday’s contest with Nebraska as the 25th best kick return man based on average, which was just a hair over 24 yards per return. Over the course of the this season he has had two separate returns of 35 yards or more, a huge increase from his 20 yard per return average from his freshman year.
He finally broke one for real against the Cornhuskers though. After Nebraska jumped out to a seven point lead, Cruickshank responded with an 89-yard return to even the score. The speedster flew through the initial openings provided by his blockers, and used a beautiful hesitation move to shake off the rest of the defenders on his way to the end zone.
The kickoff return provided a huge momentum swing that ultimately jump started the Badgers in a major way.
If the now sophomore Cruickshank can continue to elevate his game, he could prove to be a significant weapon moving forward for a special teams unit that has struggled with returns for nearly two decades.
Oh, he can dance as well.
Read-option tackling woes
For the bulk of 2019 Wisconsin has been exceptional defensively. The Badgers have struggled as of late though against spread principles employed by Illinois, Ohio State and Nebraska. The read-option and run-pass-option concepts used by all three teams have left Wisconsin linebackers out of position at times, and have led to chunk yardage on the ground.
Nebraska came into the game averaging 186 yards on the ground prior to Wisconsin, but they were able to rush for 273 yards with sack yardage included. That gaudy total was over three times more than Wisconsin’s average of 84 rushing yards allowed per game.
Current Wisconsin tackling... pic.twitter.com/pbYST8sHSJ— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) November 16, 2019
The Badger defenders were notably mistrusting their eyes and the resulting misplayed assignments cost them routinely. Nebraska was able to run through huge holes and went seemingly untouched at times five yards or more downfield.
While the defensive scheme miscues were apparent, missed tackles haunted the defense and compounded the struggles. On Saturday, Wisconsin had 18 missed tackles according to Pro Football Focus. After re-watch, I was surprised it wasn’t more.
With upcoming opponents Purdue and Minnesota each using spread concepts, it will be vital for Jim Leonhard and the Badger defense clean up some assignment issues and get back to the basics for tackling, especially in space.
Wisconsin Nebraska is the ultimate game to watch if you want to see whatever the opposite of solid fundamental tackling is— Off Tackle Empire (@offtackleempire) November 16, 2019
Championship aspirations alive
With the wins over Iowa and Nebraska, Wisconsin kept their Big Ten West division championship chances alive.
Iowa lent Wisconsin a hand later in the day by taking down then undefeated Minnesota. With a matchup still looming between Wisconsin and Minnesota, the regular season finale could be for the chance to represent the west division in Indianapolis.
AND IOWA KNOCKS IT DOWN! KINNICK MAGIC STRIKES AGAIN! THANK YOU HAWKEYES!!!— Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q) November 17, 2019
Wisconsin is back in control of their own destiny, and with the way the Wisconsin offensive line has rebounded these past two games, fans have to be excited.
The one game at a time mantra is especially true with Purdue coming to town next, but having a chance to avenge last seasons loss and take back the axe from Minnesota while punching your ticket to Indianapolis is now back in play.