Madison, Wisconsin will be the scene for what could be a preview of the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
The favorites in the Leaders Division, the Wisconsin Badgers (ranked #7 in both the AP and USA Today polls), will host the Nebraska Cornhuskers (ranked #8 in both the AP and USA Today polls) in the conference opener for both teams, this Saturday night at 8:00 pm ET.
Of course, for Nebraska this is more than just a conference opener, as this will be their first Big Ten game since moving to the conference to start this season.
The Huskers will get as tough a test as the Big Ten has to offer, playing in notoriously raucous Camp Randall Stadium as ABC’s marquee Saturday night game and with the ESPN College Gameday crew in attendance.
How they look headed into Saturday
Both teams enter 4-0, having gone unscathed through their non-conference slate to open the season. Wisconsin hasn’t been tested yet, rolling through their 4 wins with an average margin of victory of 40 points. Their non-conference schedule was weak, but the Badgers dominated defensively, allowing less than 9 points per contest.
First-year starting quarterback Russell Wilson has been dynamic as a thrower and capable as a runner, giving the Badgers a dimension offensively that hasn’t been seen in Madison in recent years. Wilson ranks in the top 10 in the FBS in passing yards (1136, 9th), touchdowns (11, t-8th) and passer rating (218.4, 2nd) while only throwing one interception.
Wisconsin has excelled in running the football, as usual. Montee Ball and James White, the Badgers’ two-headed tailback beast, have combined for 663 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns so far. The Badgers always display a punishing running game, and 2011 has been no different.
Nebraska has been less impressive, struggling to put away Fresno State until the 4th quarter and Washington until a couple of costly turnovers by the Huskies allowed Nebraska to build a large lead.
Nebraska’s biggest concerns have been a struggling defense that is allowing 350 yards per game, including over 400 to both Fresno State and Washington, and the exciting but inconsistent sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez.
Martinez is a spectacular playmaker, but his numbers as a thrower have regressed since his freshman season. So far he has rushed for 421 yards – which is good for 18th among all FBS players – and 7 touchdowns, but he is completing only 50% of his passes en route to only 162 passing yards per game.
Nebraska’s junior running back Rex Burkhead has gotten off to a great start, amassing 420 yards and 7 touchdowns in the first 4 games. If Martinez continues to struggle passing, the Huskers will rely on Burkhead to shoulder a big chunk of the load offensively.
What Wisconsin must do to win
For the Badgers to win this game, they must continue to play tough, disciplined defense, particularly against Martinez’s running plays.
Last year, another scintillating running quarterback, Michigan’s Denard Robinson, threw for 239 yards, rushed for 121 yards, and combined for 4 scores. Wisconsin won the game thanks to Michigan’s awful defense, but even as much as the Huskers have struggled to defend this season they are nowhere near as bad as Michigan was last year.
Wisconsin also must continue to do what they do best – manage the game by controlling the clock and running the ball. The Badgers rarely turn the ball over, and with their powerful rushing attack can eat up huge chunks of the clock and keep opponents’ offenses off the field.
Russell Wilson needs to play a composed, patient game. He has feasted on weaker defenses so far, so he needs to pick his spots for big plays and allow Ball and White to dominate the game. If they are successful running the ball, Wilson’s opportunities will open up and he’ll be able to play pitch and catch with his receivers.
The Huskers have had issues with turning the ball over this season, and although they are even in turnover margin (6 takeaways, 6 giveaways), they cannot expect Wisconsin to gift-wrap them any easy scores by putting the ball on the ground or throwing it to the wrong colored jersey. So if the Huskers give the ball away, they will end up on the wrong side of the turnover battle and will likely lose.
Martinez will need to be decisive and get the ball out quickly. He is the key to everything Nebraska does offensively, so as he goes, the Huskers go. I would try to hit receivers on quick routes early and often, allowing the running game to open up for Martinez and Burkhead.
Lastly, they must handle the hostile environment. Camp Randall is loud, and “Jump Around” will be blaring. False starts and miscommunications could crush the Huskers’ hopes. The Huskers have practiced with artificial noise, but there is no simulating what this game will be like, especially given its historical significance and spotlight on national television. You know the Badgers’ fans would love to spoil this one for the Huskers.
I expect the Badgers to come out hot. I look for Wilson to hit on a couple of big scoring strikes in the first half while Nebraska’s offense sputters a bit. Wisconsin will build a sizable lead by the third quarter and focus on controlling the clock with Ball and White and playing mistake-free football.
As the Huskers get more desperate and Wisconsin settles in, I see them scoring on some big plays of their own, but ultimately never putting the Badgers in any real danger.
Final Score: Wisconsin 34, Nebraska 24.
Wisconsin wins and covers the spread (-9.5 as of posting). I also expect these two teams to meet again in December in Indianapolis with a trip to a BCS bowl – and maybe more for Wisconsin – on the line.
Now it’s your turn:
Wisconsin-Nebraska Game Info
- Wisconsin-Nebraska Date: Saturday, October 1st
- Wisconsin-Nebraska Kickoff Time: 8:00 ET
- Wisconsin-Nebraska TV: ABC
- Wisconsin-Nebraska Point Spread: Wisconsin -9.5
- Wisconsin-Nebraska Over-Under: 56