Badgers/Huskers Preview: Good Times For Wisconsin Sports Fans
Political turmoil. Budget woes. Wages falling. Poverty increasing. Unprecedented cuts in education.
Oh, and it’s about to get real damn cold.
No, these are surely not the best of times in Wisconsin.
Unless you’re a sports fan.
Right now Wisconsin boasts an embarrassment of sports riches nearly unprecedented in the state’s history. It’s a cornucopia of sports goodness that brings to mind the same-city, dual-league dominance of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Pirates of the late seventies and the more recent Boston-based supremacy of the Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics.
The good news for Wisconsin sports fans is, with the NBA in a seemingly endless lockout, the forever-inept Milwaukee Bucks can’t come along and screw it up.
You’d have to go back to the early fall of 1982 for a similar run of good fortune for the Badgers, Brewers, and Packers, but even that pales in comparison to 2011, since in 1982 the Badgers were off to a blah 1-2 start (on their way to an Independence Bowl victory), and the Packers (who would eventually make the playoffs) had their 2-0 start sidetracked by a 57-day NFL strike that lasted from late September to mid-November.
Not to mention that in 1982 we were all too wrapped up in Thriller to care that much.
In 2011, it’s hard not to care. But while the Brewers are wrapping up their most successful regular season in 29 years and the Packers are off to a (albeit somewhat expected) 3-0 start, perhaps it’s the 2011 football Badgers that have been most impressive, winning their first four games by a combined score of 194-34, while having the No. 6-ranked offense and No. 3-ranked defense among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
However, it’s also easy to argue that, given the talent level of the Badgers’ first four opponents, we don’t really know how good this year’s Wisconsin football program really is.
Well, we are about to find out.
In what has to be considered the most anticipated regular season Big Ten game in many years, No. 7 Wisconsin is about to take on No. 8 Nebraska in the Cornhuskers’ first-ever conference game as a member of the Big Ten. National primetime broadcast television. Under the lights.
To paraphrase David Letterman, on Saturday night Wisconsin Badger football will be the only thing on ABC.
Will Badger fans like what they see?
Let’s take a look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines of the game, and since this is such a big game, we’ll even give you a bonus storyline:
1. Battle of the Quarterbacks. With quarterbacks like Tavaris Jackson, Luke McCown, and Kerry Collins stinking it up in the NFL, it’s safe to say that Saturday night’s game will feature better quarterbacking than some Sunday match-ups. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson has been not only the most impressive quarterback in the Big Ten, but perhaps the most impressive quarterback in the country, improbably living up to if not surpassing what could have been suffocating preseason hype. With 11 touchdowns in his first four games, Wilson is on pace to shatter the Badgers’ record of 21 touchdowns set by John Stocco in 2005.
The good news for Wilson Saturday is that while he’s excelled against poor defenses to this point, he shouldn’t be too nervous about Nebraska’s secondary either: The Huskers are coming to Madison ranked near the bottom in the Big Ten in pass defense and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has already made sea changes in his secondary, knowing that the towering trio of Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, and Jacob Pedersen are going to give his unit fits. Look for Wilson’s success to continue.
While Wilson has excelled, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez still has to shake off some doubters; he’s only completing about 50 percent of his passes despite the fact that Nebraska plays a relatively conservative offense with a short passing game – through four games, Martinez is averaging 8.1 yards per pass, while Wilson is averaging 12.5 yards per throw. However, like Wilson, Martinez’s ability to run the ball – he had 344 yards on the ground through the first three games this season – make him very much a dangerous player.
Of the two quarterbacks, Martinez definitely has the most to gain by a solid performance Saturday night. But even if he plays well, it’s likely he’ll be outshone by Wilson.
2. Fumbling Into Madison. Despite having the No. 2-ranked offense in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s attack has been anything but a well-oiled machine so far in 2011. The Huskers have fumbled the ball a whopping 13 times in their first four games, and while they’ve only lost four of them, Wisconsin’s defense should be quicker to the ball than Nebraska’s previous opponents. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has yet to fumble the ball this year. The Huskers could be doomed if they can’t find a way to flip that script.
3. Keep It Close. Nebraska has been at their best in the second half of their games in 2011, outscoring their opponents 100-47 over the last two quarters, including a 51-10 advantage in the third quarter alone. Conversely, the Badgers have been putting their opponents away early, outscoring the opposition 117-13 in the first half alone. If the Huskers can keep it close in the first half and limit the Camp Randall crowd factor, they might give themselves a chance to pull the upset. Might.
4. Corn To Run? While the Badgers have the dynamic duo of James White and Montee Ball, who have thus far combined for 657 yards and 12 touchdowns through four games, Nebraska actually leads the Big Ten in rushing, thanks to junior running back Rex Burkhead and Martinez, who together have racked up 788 yards and 14 touchdowns. Can the Huskers beat the Badgers at what has traditionally been Wisconsin’s game? Possibly, but if the Badgers can take to the air like they have been, it probably won’t matter.
It’s tough, because neither Nebraska nor Wisconsin have really been tested so far this season. But although their schedule has probably been even easier, Wisconsin has just been much more impressive in 2011. And they’re at home.
Prediction: Wisconsin 35, Nebraska 24.
Oh, and go Brewers.
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