The only Top 10 matchup of the week has been sold out for months, and with upwards of 20,000 Nebraska natives caravanning and careening towards Camp Randall you could not have drawn up a more fitting curtain-raiser for the new-look Big Ten. Nebraska, ranked 8th in both polls comes to Madison, led by fourth-year coach Bo Pelini (34-12 at Nebraska; 3-1 in bowl games).
The Cornhuskers returned five offensive starters and seven defensive incumbents from a season ago. The 2011 incornation is 4-0, thanks to victories over Chattannooga, Fresno State and Washington in Lincoln, and Wyoming in Larramie just last weekend. Nebraska is averaging 42.8 points per game while only surrendering 22.0.
On the road under Pelini, the Cornhuskers are 11-4 overall and 2-1 as an away underdog, which they will be Saturday night. (Bookmaker BetUS.com has the Badgers as a nine point favorite.)
Nebraska returns sophomore starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, who is 43-85 (50.6%) for 647 yards. He has thrown four touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
Martinez and starting junior running back Rex Burkhead have been nearly identical in carrying the football. Both have 63 carries, while Martinez’s 421 yards is only three feet better than Burkhead’s. Both have seven touchdowns and gains of 50 yards or more. Redshirt freshman Brion Carnes, from Clearwater (FL), is the backup quarterback should anything happen to Martinez. He is 1-1 on the year for 19 yards.
With only 44 completions on the season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that no Cornhusker receiver has more than eight catches.
Still, the Badgers won’t take the UNL pass-catchers lightly. True freshman Jamal Turner, a converted high school quarterback, leads the team in receptions and yards, while 6’3" 225-pound senior Brandon Kinnie and 6’3" 230-pound junior tight end Kyler Reed buoy the attack. Kinnie was second on the team in receiving yards in 2010, while Reed chipped in nearly 400 of his own last season.
Both are returning starters who figure to play an integral role as some of the few upperclassmen on offense. Look for sophomores Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa to hear their names called as well. The pair have 13 catches between them, and two of the four touchdown receptions on the season.
Nebraska had to replace three starters from last season, in which they gave up 29 sacks. The offensive line is led by senior center Mike Caputo. First-year starter sophomores Andrew Rodriguez and Spencer Long will flank Caputo at left and right guard, respectively.
The returning starter at left tackle, sophomore Jeremiah Sirles, was replaced by 6’7” 320-pound Jermarcus Hardrick, a junior college transfer from Mississippi. If there is a weakness it may be at right tackle, where true freshman Tyler Moore will get the nod. Moore is only 290 pounds despite his 6’6" frame.
Defensively is where Bo Pelini, and his brother, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, are extraordinary. The Cornhuskers return three All-Americans, one at each level of the defense.
Senior defensive tackle Jared Crick (6’6" 285 pounds) is a future pro who will remind some Badger fans of former end J.J. Watt. Relentless and strong, Crick made first team All-Big 12 in 2010, and was third on the team with 70 total tackles. His 9.5 sacks were good for best on the team, while his 7.5 TFLs tied him for second among Cornhuskers. His 2 PBUs are also very Watt-esque.
Crick sat out the game against Wyoming because he was “dinged up,” according to his coach. Many pundits thought he was feeling the effects of a slight concussion. Expect him to be ready to go on Saturday.
Junior defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler (6’6" 290lbs) is a second generation Cornhusker who is also a returning starter. The defensive end to watch is junior Cameron Meredith (6’4" 260lbs). Meredith has three sacks on the season and an interception to boot.
Jason Ankrah will get his fifth consecutive start opposite Meredith on the line. Ankrah, a sophomore, has five tackles and one sack on the year.
The linebackers are led by 2010 first team All-Big 12 selection Lavonte David. The Miami (FL) native will play the weak side, which allows junior and fellow returning starter Will Compton to play the middle. Compton was a second team freshman All-American in 2009, and is third on the team in tackles this season.
Super-tall (6’6") Sean Fisher, a first-year buck linebacker from Omaha, will be making just his third start of the season.
In the secondary, senior Alfonzo Dennard returns off a second team All-Big 12 season. Dennard, who has been nursing a quad injury and saw his first action last week, will likely get the task of guarding Wisconsin wide receiver Nick Toon. Dennard played about 2.5 quarters in Larramie and came out of the game healthy.
Who mans the other corner is still a mystery. Freshman Corey Cooper started last week and admitted he was a bundle of nerves. Cooper gave up a 48-yard score on a slant pattern that the Cowboys receiver took the distance.
Sophomore Ciante Evans will see the field, as will converted safety and the team’s second leading tackler Damion Stafford. Lincoln product Austin Cassidy will play strong safety. P.J. Smith is also a viable option who has played in three games this season and started just one.
The Cornhuskers' new kicker is junior Brent Maher. Maher is 8-9 with a long of 50 yards on the season. He is also perfect on PATs.
The Key for the Nebraska Offense:
Nebraska is really going to be up against it if they can’t run the ball effectively. This must be mission 1A and 1B for the Cornhuskers.
Control the clock, and keep the Badgers' offense off the field. Burkhead is a really good back and Martinez is probably underrated as a runner. He gets north-south about as fast as anyone the Badgers have seen in years. Expect to see a ton of zone-read and play-action with the ball in Martinez’s hands to make plays and test the discipline of the Badgers defense.
Wisconsin has been good, if not great, against the run this season, but they’ve nary been tested by a ground game as potent as this.
The Key for the Nebraska Defense:
Focus. Don't think for a second Wisconsin will be too conservative to call fly-sweeps, tight end screens, line up with five wide receivers, fake punts or field goals, or take chances like a bomb on 1st and 10. UW has been labeled vanilla in the past, and to be fair, they have been in the non-conference this season. But expect all that to be thrown out the window in conference play.
Also, expect a wrinkle or two for Wilson in the game—designed draws or bootlegs, specifically. Don't think for a second that Wisconsin will not want to show off its remarkable arsenal in front of the college football viewing world on Saturday night. Whether it’s the nasty, powerful running game or the crafty and prolific passing game, for four quarters Nebraska must stay focused.
In the last BIG home game they played, Wisconsin jumped on Ohio State in 2010, starting with the opening kickoff. I've seen my fair share of games in the Camp, and I know that if you can get out in front early you can take the crowd out of it. UW fans, for all their enthusiasm, are a fickle bunch. Don't fall too far behind early (especially since Martinez is not the most accurate passer) or else it could be a long night.