Both standing with a 3-1 record coming into this weekend, the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers will vie for a vital victory in their Big Ten opener on Sunday in Lincoln.
The Badgers come into Saturday's contest fresh off a closer-than-expected 37-26 victory against UTEP and will look to make corrections to a team that's been veering off course all season.
On the other side of the field, Nebraska is coming off what amounted to a mere warm-up match against Idaho State. The Huskers dominated from the opening whistle behind an astounding 385 yards on the ground and even sat most starters for the entire second half. Currently the 22nd-ranked team, Nebraska will need to come out on top Saturday to stay recognized by voters.
With both teams desperate for victory, here's a look at what they both must do to taste Big Ten glory this weekend.
Re-Establish Montee Ball's Dominance
After coming into 2012 widely considered the best running back in college football and a favorite for the Heisman Trophy, Montee Ball has struggled mightily thus far.
Despite running the ball 93 times in four games, Ball has gained just 360 yards for the season and has lacked any noticeable explosion. Considering the team was relying on similar production to his amazing 2011 campaign, there is little wonderment left as to why the Badgers have disappointed this year.
Though the senior star suffered a concussion last week against UTEP, he has said there is "no doubt" he will play on Saturday (via the Wisconsin State Journal's Tom Mulhern).
If cleared, the Badgers will need to get Ball involved early and often to guarantee victory. Nebraska's run defense is a clear weakness, having given up 708 yards (second-worst in the Big Ten) this season.
For this year to avoid becoming a lost season, Wisconsin needs a renaissance from its All-American runner.
Find a Long-Term Answer at Quarterback
Whether it's freshman Joel Stave or junior Danny O'Brien, head coach Bret Bielema needs to make a decision and stick with it going forward.
While neither signal-caller has shown a particular flair for the spectacular, it's entirely unfair to the rest of the offense to have a quarterback controversy going forward.
It seems like Stave has captured the job for now, but he's bound to make the same mistakes we see from freshman quarterbacks in their first road start. If Bielema vacillates from his decision and pulls Stave, it could not only hurt the team on Saturday, but also in developing the youngster's confidence for the future.
Force Stave to Win the Game
First-year defensive coordinator John Papuchis has struggled all season to fix the Huskers' run defense woes and faces a massive test in Ball on Saturday.
Look for Nebraska to attempt to rectify that by committing eight or nine defenders to the box. Stave has yet to prove he can win a big game and will undoubtedly go into Memorial Stadium wide-eyed when looking at the sea of jeering red in the stands.
If the Huskers are able to stifle Ball's effectiveness and swallow the rest of the Badgers' running attack, it will put the onus on the 6'5" freshman to single-handedly win the game.
Stave may step up and prove Bielema correct for making the quarterback switch, but until he makes the necessary big plays, look for a heavy dose of run blitzing.
Heavy Doses of the Two-Headed Running Attack
Although Ball comes into this weekend as the highest-profile runner in the contest, Nebraska has the better rushing attack overall.
With 1,270 rushing yards thus far, the Huskers are the third-best running team in the nation and have dominated while playing most of the season without star running back Rex Burkhead.
The Huskers' star returned last weekend in fine fashion, scampering for 118 yards and two touchdowns in the team's 73-7 evisceration of Idaho State.
Going forward, it's likely that Burkhead at least splits some carries with sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who was sensational in his stead, gaining 416 yards on 69 carries for the season.
Unfortunately for the two-headed rushing attack, they will be facing up against a ferocious Wisconsin front seven that has been strong against the run all season. Nevertheless, Burkhead and Abdullah are the two most talented runners the Badgers have faced this season and stopping both will prove nearly impossible.
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