By defeating Iowa on the day after Thanksgiving, Nebraska clinched the B1G Legends Division and a trip to Indianapolis to play Wisconsin in the conference title game. But the win may have come at a high price. Defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler suffered a knee injury, and starting center Justin Jackson injured his ankle against the Hawkeyes. Both of these injuries are severe enough to likely rule them out of Saturday’s contest against the Badgers.
Head coach Bo Pelini didn’t want to play Burkhead, who is still recovering from a knee injury that has kept him out most of the season, unless Nebraska really needed him. Of course, Burkhead’s introduction in the second half sparked what little offense Nebraska generated and was a big part in securing the division-clinching win. But obviously, another week’s rest for Burkhead’s ailing knee would have been preferable in preparation for the B1G title game.
So let’s take a look at how Nebraska’s injury concerns may cause NU problems as it prepares for its third conference championship game in four years.
Steinkuhler’s injury is probably the most significant of the three. He was touted at the start of the season as one of Nebraska’s real playmakers on defense, and as the season wore on, he began to fit that role. By the end of the season, Steinkuhler rarely left the field.
Defensive tackle is also a very thin position for Nebraska. Chase Rome–you remember, the guy who left the team earlier this year–will likely be asked to take up the slack for Steinkulher’s absence. Behind Rome is Thaddeus Randle, who has struggled with injuries of his own, and little-played redshirt freshman Kevin Williams. True freshman Aaron Curry, who hasn’t seen playing time since Idaho State, may also be in line for extra playing time, and there remains an outside chance of burning Vincent Valentine’s redshirt if needed. You could also see Jason Ankrah or Cameron Meredith move inside from defensive end to provide additional support at tackle.
But missing Steinkuhler’s presence, along with the thin and unproven depth at the position, is particularly problematic against a Wisconsin team that has rediscovered its mojo as a power-rushing team. Here are Wisconsin’s rushing statistics by month (from the fine folks at cfbstats.com, which you should be looking at regularly):
Nebraska beat Wisconsin in Lincoln, 30-27, on September 29. Since then, Wisconsin has increased its average yardage per rushing attempt by almost 2.5 yards, increased its rushing attempts by more than 15 per game and increased its rushing total per game by over 183 yards. So, yeah, the smashmouth Wisconsin we all expected is back.
That will put even more pressure on Nebraska’s defensive line, particularly the interior of that line, to slow down Montee Ball and Wisconsin’s ground game. How Steinkuhler’s replacements hold up to that assault will go a long way in determining if Nebraska goes 0-3 in conference title games under Pelini.
Offensive linemen rarely get the credit they deserve, even in Nebraska. But the loss of Jackson, a senior who had been Nebraska’s starting center the whole season, was a significant blow. Most importantly, Nebraska had to tap sophomore Mark Pelini, who had no meaningful in-game experience, to direct NU’s offensive line.
During game-week preparations, the coaches will be deciding between Pelini and Cole Pensick to start at center against Wisconsin. While Pensick has more experience at the position, he has also been filling in at guard, and playing Pensick would mean more playing time for a struggling Seung Hoon Choi at the position.
Not only did Jackson have the experience, but he was also particularly effective at pulling. It’s not common to see a center be able to snap the ball then sprint to his left or his right to block a running play on the edges. But the center’s ability to pull and help create that lane on the edge has been a part of why the toss sweep has become Nebraska’s go-to running play this season. Will Pelini or Pensick be as effective as Jackson at pulling? We’ll find out on Saturday.
It appears that Burkhead will likely get the start at running back against Wisconsin on Saturday. A healthy Burkhead is a huge weapon in Nebraska’s arsenal and could prove to be the difference in a game that is likely to be a hard-fought and hard-hitting affair.
But we’ve also seen this movie before. Nebraska thought Burkhead was ready to come back earlier, but he played somewhat sparingly (at least compared to last season’s workload) against Idaho State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Then, early in the first quarter against Northwestern, he re-injured his knee and was out for another four games.
So yes, Burkhead will start, although he will likely share carries with Ameer Abdullah and Braylon Heard. But that giant sucking sound you hear on Saturday will be the Children of the Corn collectively holding their breath every time Burkhead is slow to get off the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.
The Wisconsin that Nebraska will face in the B1G title game is a very different team than the one NU squeaked by in Lincoln, a team that has improved offensively and rediscovered its identity. Wisconsin has also received good news on injuries, learning that wideout Jared Abbrederis, offensive lineman Kyle Costigan and linebacker Chris Borland are all likely to play against Nebraska.
But Nebraska is also a better team than the one that beat Wisconsin in the super-cool alternate uniform game this September (any chance the teams could wear those alts again on Saturday? Please?), with a confidence and resolve forged by the fires of a season full of gut-check comeback victories.
So even though Wisconsin is 7-5 and would be the first five-loss team to play in the Rose Bowl, Nebraska fans would be wise in holding off purchasing plane tickets and making hotel reservations for Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
If nothing else, for karma’s sake.
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