Every college football Saturday is exciting as teams look for matchups to exploit in what traditionally is the game within the game for coaches and players alike.
This year we at B5Q will dive into one pivotal matchup to keep an eye on as the Wisconsin Badgers work their way through their non-conference and Big Ten portions of their 2021 football schedule.
While all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, there are normally a few specific matchups that can make or break a game for a particular side. This weekly feature will highlight one of those matchups in greater detail as we preview the upcoming weekend.
This week we focus on Wisconsin’s linebacking corps and their challenge against Nebraska’s read option.
The case for Adrian Martinez/Rahmir Johnson
Nebraska is a hybrid spread team. They take nearly 100% of their snaps from the shotgun or pistol, and Scott Frost has essentially built the whole damn plane out of quarterback Adrian Martinez and his athletic ability.
66% of Nebraska’s total yards this year have come from Adrian Martinez throwing or running the ball, while a good chunk of the remaining yardage is directly tied to the threat of his running ability because of the read-option.
Now, Nebraska does not solely rely on zone-read/read-option concepts. The Cornhuskers do like to run power with both their quarterback or running back and utilize play-action effectively, but the read-option presents a different challenge for defenders. Adrian Martinez has multiple different options on each play and it falls on him to read and react correctly based on what the defense does.
The last time these two teams met, back in 2019, Nebraska did have success on the ground. Adrian Martinez had 309 total yards and two touchdowns, while Nebraska as a team ran for 273 on the ground with the majority of their damage coming in the first half.
This year’s team is a different squad, but the Cornhuskers have been effective offensively this year at times. Rahmir Johnson has run the ball effectively this season, and he has earned more opportunities as the season has worn on. How well the Badgers slow down Nebraska’s read-option attack that features Johnson and Martinez will go a long way in determining the outcome on Saturday.
The case for Wisconsin’s linebackers
There is very little new information that can be said about the play of Wisconsin’s linebackers. They have been downright nasty this season.
Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn might be the best linebacking tandem in the entire country this season, while Nick Herbig leads the team in sacks while being the team’s fourth-leading tackler. Noah Burks has emerged of late as well, recording an interception and three sacks in the past four games.
The quartet of Chenal, Sanborn, Herbig and Burks is a big reason for the overwhelming success of Wisconsin’s defense this year, as the team ranks No. 1 or No. 2 across the entire FBS in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense.
However, this group of experienced linebackers will have a different challenge versus Nebraska and the read-option. The linebacking corps will need to stay disciplined to contain Martinez and his running ability.
One additional advantage that the Badgers should have though is that Nebraska has given up a ton of sacks this season (2.7 per game). Because of this, Wisconsin should have opportunities to get into the backfield to cause some havoc and potentially force some turnovers.
The linebacker room for the Badgers has undoubtedly earned the benefit of the doubt this season. They should have the advantage this weekend, but how they perform versus Nebraska will be pivotal.