Nebraska vs. Wisconsin: Complete Game Preview
In a rematch from earlier this season, the Wisconsin Badgers will square off against the No. 12 Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis for the right to play in the Rose Bowl.
The first contest featured an impressive come-from-behind victory for Nebraska in Lincoln, overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit to knock off Wisconsin 30-27 way back on Sept. 29.
The Cornhuskers (10-2, 7-1) have won six straight games while the Badgers (7-5, 4-4) are reeling, coming off back-to-back overtime losses as they back into the title game.
Still, a lot has changed since these two teams went at it two months ago, so let's preview the Big Ten Championship Game to find out who will earn a trip to Pasadena.
What Happened to the Badgers Last Week?
Montee Ball broke the NCAA FBS touchdown record on a 17-yard run, but the Badgers lost their third overtime game of the season to Penn State by the score of 24-21.
Wisconsin scored on its first two possessions, jumping on a Nittany Lion defense known for shutting down offenses in the first quarter. But the Badgers failed to score again until with under a minute remaining in regulation to force overtime.
Once again, Wisconsin lost a game that went down to the wire, as the Badgers were 0-4 in conference games decided by seven points or less.
The kicking woes of Kyle French are a legitimate concern. For the second straight week, French missed from just over 40 yards, and games that come down to a field goal put the Badgers at a distinct disadvantage.
What Happened to the Cornhuskers Last Week?
Rex Burkhead forced his way back onto the field in the second half, scoring the go-ahead touchdown against Iowa to propel Nebraska to a 13-7 victory on a blustery afternoon in Iowa City.
Burkhead had missed parts of the team's previous five games with a knee injury, and his status was uncertain heading into last weekend, but Burkhead is back, adding yet another dimension to the Cornhuskers' dynamic backfield.
It was a testament to what Nebraska has done all season, falling behind and finding a way to claw its way back into the game, eventually pulling out the win. Unlike the Badgers, the Cornhuskers have thrived in late-game situations, going 4-0 in games decided by seven points or less in conference play.
Whatever it is, this team seems to prefer playing from behind, and so far that blueprint has nearly worked to perfection for Nebraska.
Even though the Wisconsin defense has performed fairly well in his absence, linebacker Chris Borland, perhaps the Badgers' top defender, missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
Borland is expected to practice this week and play against Nebraska. The same can be said for wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who suffered a head injury against Penn State, and guard Kyle Costigan, who has been cleared of concussion-like symptoms (via Jeff Potrykus of jsonline.com).
That puts the Badgers near full strength for Saturday, but Nebraska has linemen from both sides of the ball with injuries that will keep them out of the B1G title game.
Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler (knee) and center Justin Jackson (ankle) each went down in the first half against Iowa. Therefore, defensive end Cameron Meredith will move inside, but head coach Bo Pelini has yet to decide on the starter at center (via Steven M. Sipple of the Journal Star).
As previously noted, Rex Burkhead is healthy and appears to have reprised his role as the Cornhuskers No. 1 back (via Big Red Today).
Key Player for Wisconsin
It hasn't taken long for Curt Phillips to show everyone he possesses the clutch gene.
In the last two weeks, Phillips has led the offense down the field for a game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Now if only Phillips could translate that ability to the rest of his game.
Overall, Phillips has performed just as well as his quarterback counterparts in his three starts this season, and it wouldn't be fair to pin the blame on the redshirt senior for Wisconsin's consecutive overtime losses.
Even so, if Wisconsin finds itself in yet another late-game situation in which the Badger offense needs to put together a scoring drive, it can trust Phillips to take over.
Against Ohio State and Penn State, Phillips went a combined 11-of-14 for 102 yards and two touchdowns in the Badgers' final offensive possessions in regulation.
He will need to perform at a similar level in the clutch against Nebraska's top-ranked pass defense if the Badgers want a chance at going to the Rose Bowl and claiming their third-straight Big Ten championship.
Key Player for Nebraska
Putting up 69 yards in one half of play against a defense of Iowa's caliber is one thing, but going up against Wisconsin's 13th-ranked rush defense is a completely different challenge.
The Badgers will have their hands full containing dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez, but Burkhead will need to be effective against Wisconsin's front seven to take some pressure off Martinez.
Just how close to 100 percent is Burkhead? Will he receive the bulk of the carries over Ameer Abdullah?
Burkhead is a senior, and he will want the ball in his hands as much as his coaches allow. His emergence against the Hawkeyes last week was a surprise to many, and his knee looked just fine based on how he ran the football.
Against the Badgers in September, Burkhead rushed for 86 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry, but that was pre-knee injury, and the Wisconsin defense is much improved.
If Burkhead is unable to get it going on Saturday, Wisconsin can devote more man power to limiting Martinez both on the ground and through the air, but if Burkhead can provide balance to the Nebraska offense, it could be a long night for the Badgers.
Taylor Martinez vs. Wisconsin's front seven
It's no secret that Taylor Martinez likes to take off running, and this creates more opportunities in the passing game as well as misery for opposing defenses.
As Dan Patrick famously recants, you can't stop him—you can only hope to contain him.
That's exactly what the Badger front seven has in mind, something it failed to do in the teams' first matchup when Martinez rushed for 107 yards and one touchdown.
Wisconsin will benefit from Chris Borland's return, and the speed of defensive end David Gilbert will also attempt to make lift difficult for Martinez. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is arguably even more dangerous with his feet than Martinez, and the Badgers held him to just 48 rushing yards on 2.1 yards per carry.
The question is if the Wisconsin defense—particularly its front seven—can repeat that effort against Martinez, and if it can, it throws a wrench in Nebraska's offensive game plan.
Wisconsin Will Win If...
Wisconsin will win if it doesn't avoid what works.
It sounds simple, but when Bret Bielema is your head coach, it's anything but.
The Badgers' offense looked like an unstoppable force in its first two possessions against Penn State, scoring on a 57-yard swing pass to Melvin Gordon and a 17-yard run to the outside by Montee Ball.
Strangely enough, the Badgers seemed to abandon running outside and getting the ball to its speedsters in space. Bielema went away from calling end-arounds and stretch plays, conceivably because he only believed those plays couldn't possibly work more than once.
Wisconsin needs to get the ball to its playmakers—Gordon, Jared Abbrederis and James White—out in the open field. There is big-play potential when these players, along with Ball, get the rock while utilizing every inch of the field.
The coaching staff needs to realize this and get out of its own way for the Badgers to become an 8-5 Rose Bowl team.
Nebraska Will Win If...
Nebraska will win if the game is close at the end.
It doesn't matter how this happens. Nebraska can do what it has done all year and come from behind, or it can go back and forth with the Badgers all game long.
Wisconsin doesn't get blown out thanks to its ability to possess the football and its stout defense, and Nebraska doesn't tend to blow teams out, so this game is shaping up to be a barn-burner.
That benefits the Cornhuskers, at least based on each team's recent past. Nebraska won every close game it was involved in during Big Ten conference play while Wisconsin did the exact opposite.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is, but history tends to repeat itself. Should the Cornhuskers manage to keep this game close—this sounds silly considering their superior record—they should be able to pull off the victory when it's all said and done.
Prediction: Nebraska 31, Wisconsin 24
Nebraska has had its fair share of issues in recent championship games, losing consecutive Big 12 title games before bolting for the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin already has experience playing in Indianapolis, winning the inaugural Big Ten championship.
That familiarity and previous success for the Badgers coupled with Nebraska's struggles in title games won't translate to Saturday night—it just isn't in the cards.
Nebraska is 10-2, has been getting all the breaks and knows how to win close games. Wisconsin is 7-5 and simply can't finish.
Anything can happen in college football, and it would be fitting for the Big Ten, which is having a down year, to be represented in the Rose Bowl by an 8-5 team, but that would just make too much sense.
It won't be as memorable as last season's title game, but it will be a good one nonetheless. The Cornhuskers win on a late touchdown and stamp their ticket to Pasadena.
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