Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Wisconsin Badgers Complete Game Preview
Since the beginning of the season, Wisconsin football fans have circled the Nov. 15 Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Wisconsin Badgers game as the de facto Big Ten West championship game (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). With three Big Ten games left for both teams, they both sit at 4-1, tied for the lead of the division.
If this isn't exactly what fans expected, then I don't know what is.
While both teams are tied for the lead of the Big Ten, both have taken rather circuitous paths to this spot. The Badgers lost on opening day to LSU and inexplicably lost at Northwestern in one of the sloppiest games on record.
The Cornhuskers didn't exactly roll through their fairly weak nonconference slate, needing some late-game heroics from star tailback Ameer Abdullah to put away FCS McNeese State. The Cornhuskers' only loss came to Michigan State in East Lansing, a game where they looked terrible for 50 or so minutes before cutting the deficit at the end.
Both teams have some real strengths, particularly in their ability to get to the quarterback and running the ball; however, both teams have seen wild inconsistency in the passing game.
With these teams playing for the first Freedom Trophy because the Big Ten needs another trophy game, let's take a look at the keys to success and players to watch for each team. We'll also take a look at what the coaches and players are saying for each team and make a prediction.
Nebraska Keys to Success
Run the Ball
Coming into this game, the Cornhuskers are averaging 280.7 rushing yards, good for 10th in the country. With that being said, against Michigan State, by far the stingiest defense they've played this season, they ran for only 47 yards on 37 carries, good for 1.3 yards per carry.
In that game, stud running back Abdullah carried the ball 24 times for 45 yards (1.9 yards per carry). With Abdullah getting hurt against Purdue in their last game on Nov. 1 after toting the ball six times for one yard, they will need a big game out of him. It helps that head coach Bo Pelini said he should be "100 percent."
The Badgers have one of the best run defenses in the country, conceding just 99.4 rushing yards per game against FBS foes, good for fifth best. With a healthy Warren Herring in the fold, they are all the more dangerous, which is bad news whether or not Abdullah is at 100 percent.
If the Cornhuskers can rush for over 200 yards, then they will be in great shape as they can control the clock and prevent the Badgers from doing what they do best: run the ball themselves. If they can't crack the century mark, then there's no way they can win. If they fall in between 100 and 200 yards, then as expected this game will come down to the final possessions.
Defend the Run
For as good as the Cornhuskers are at running the ball, the Badgers are somehow better. Fifth in the country at 325.7 rushing yards per game, the dynamic duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement present matchup nightmares for any defense.
Nebraska is quite good at defending the run, clocking in at 14th in the country against FBS foes, conceding only 117.0 rushing yards per game. With that being said, it has yet to go up against a run game of the Badgers' caliber.
Joel Stave proved he can throw the ball, going 15-of-19 for 190 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the first half against Purdue last Saturday. If he can throw the ball like that against Nebraska, then the Cornhuskers won't be able to sell out against the run. If he can't throw, there is no reason why Nebraska should have fewer than eight men in the box.
Wisconsin Keys to Success
Run the Ball
Melvin Gordon is the leading rusher in the country with 1,501 yards. I'm going to let that number sink in for a while. To put that in perspective, 13 running backs broke 1,500 yards over the course of the entire season last year, while Gordon's managed to do that in just nine games.
Gordon is not alone in the backfield, as Corey Clement has chipped in 720 rushing yards, forming arguably just as potent a tandem as Gordon and James White, who combined for 3,053 rushing yards last season.
Helping out in the run game is quarterback Tanner McEvoy, who in just nine games has 442 rushing yards on 47 carries. While pretty much a zero as a passer, he is lethal in the read-option, using his incredible athleticism and size to make big plays happen.
Nebraska has a great run defense, conceding just 117 yards per game, but has not had to deal with a Heisman candidate yet in the backfield. If the Badgers can open things up a little with the passing game, Gordon will have a field day. If they can't, he'll need to be special.
Get to the Quarterback
Running the risk of writing the same thing on both slides, I'll mix things up here. While stopping Abdullah is paramount to the Badgers' success, they have been very good at stopping the run this season even without bringing pressure, as Herring has clogged up the middle with aplomb.
The Badgers have 28 sacks on the season led by Vince Biegel with 6.5 and followed by Derek Landisch with 6.0. The key to the Badgers' new defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is bringing pressure with smaller, quicker linebackers.
If the Badgers can get to Tommy Armstrong Jr. three or more times, then it will put the onus on Abdullah much more to run against the Badgers' stout defensive front than if he has time to throw, which would in turn open up the run game.
Nebraska Players to Watch
Ameer Abdullah, Running Back
A Heisman candidate in his own right, Abdullah has the size and speed combination that gives defensive coordinators many a sleepless night. On the season, he has 1,250 rushing yards, good for fifth best in the country, and has 1,691 all-purpose yards, which is 187.9 per game.
Abdullah was injured two weeks ago against Purdue after being held to just one yard on six carries. He has shown flashes of brilliance—four games of more than 200 rushing yards—to go along with three real duds against Purdue, Michigan State (24 carries for 45 yards) and FCS McNeese State (17 carries for 54 yards).
Abdullah's struggles against Michigan State could be a cause for concern when it comes to this game, as he never really looked comfortable despite getting plenty of carries. He needs to break the century mark if the Cornhuskers want to beat the Badgers this week.
Randy Gregory, Defensive End
Considered the fourth-best player on Mel Kiper's Big Board (ESPN Insider subscription required), Gregory is an absolute monster. In eight games this season, Gregory has 37 tackles, 5.5 sacks and seven tackles-for-loss with an astounding 14 quarterback hits.
The Blackshirts don't bring a ton of extra men, so it's up to the four guys on the defensive line to generate pressure. With Gregory there, the Cornhuskers have been able to get to the quarterback while still dropping six or seven men in coverage.
Gregory will go up against one of the sturdiest lines in the country in the Badgers' big men up front. Featuring numerous preseason All-Big Ten selections—Rob Havenstein (1st), Kyle Costigan (1st), Tyler Marz (3rd) and Dan Voltz (4th)—the Badgers have only allowed seven sacks all season and have allowed multiple sacks only once, against Maryland.
Gregory and the Cornhuskers defense will need to find creative ways of getting the quarterback, which may even cause them to start blitzing. If Gregory and the rest of the Blackshirts can't get to Stave and McEvoy, then they'll have trouble winning. If they can get to the quarterback two or three times, they'll be in very good shape.
Wisconsin Players to Watch
Melvin Gordon, Running Back
Every week, I've tried to pick different players to fill this spot. This week, I'm circling back to the player to watch. Sure, the team rests on the shoulders of Joel Stave, Alex Erickson, Tanner McEvoy and the offensive line and whomever else you want to name. But when push comes to shove, this team is about Gordon.
Gordon is a Heisman candidate for a reason—an FBS-leading 1,501 rushing yards, 19 rushing touchdowns, 11 receptions for 83 yards and two receiving touchdowns—and while Gordon can have a bad game and the team can still win handily (Western Illinois) and he can have a great game and they can still lose (Northwestern), those are aberrations.
Gordon already has 198 carries on the season and has shown no signs of slowing down. Last season, he looked tired as they got into the home stretch despite having only (a small number by his standards) 206 carries all season and only 181 in the regular season.
Gordon has established himself as one of the top running backs in the country, if not the best non-suspended running back, bringing a skill set rarely seen by a Wisconsin running back—the ability to not only run between the tackles but also set the edge and win a foot race.
Gordon has at least 120 rushing yards in every game but one this season including a streak of seven in a row, going over 200 rushing yards three times in that span. Gordon will need to at least break the century mark, if not at least 150 rushing yards, to keep the chains moving and bring the Badgers to the end zone.
Vince Biegel, Outside Linebacker
In nine games, the Nebraska offensive line has conceded just nine sacks. In nine games, Vince Biegel has 6.5 sacks on his own including three last week against Purdue. While Purdue's offensive line isn't like Nebraska's, any time you can pick up three sacks in a week, you've done an excellent job.
Biegel has been excellent this season, with 39 tackles, 12 tackles-for-loss and the aforementioned 6.5 sacks. With pressure coming from all sides under Aranda, even just identifying where Biegel is won't necessarily help you figure out the blocking scheme.
Biegel doesn't necessarily need a sack for the Badgers to be successful. However, the whole linebacking corps need to provide pressure while also helping contain the potent Nebraska rushing attack.
What They're Saying
With this being by far the biggest game on the schedule since opening day against LSU, naturally there were plenty of questions at head coach Gary Andersen's Monday press conference about whether they've changed how they are preparing for the game. Unsurprisingly, Andersen wouldn't budge.
So we're going to prepare the same, and as a coach, I think it's important to allow the kids to prepare exactly the same; you put them in a position if it gets built up too much, it's not good, and if it gets built up, not good enough, I don't think it's good for the kids. And quite frankly, I don't think it's good for the coaches, so we're just going to prepare how we always prepare.
When it comes to coach-speak, it looks like both of these head coaches read the same manual. When asked about preparing for this game, head coach Bo Pelini had very similar remarks to Andersen at his Monday press conference about preparing for this game.
We don’t over-coach. We don’t do it any differently. Let me tell you, I’m not taking a shot or anything, but every game is the same magnitude as far as I’m concerned. I don’t buy into the ‘this is a big game, this isn’t a big game’ thing. Just watch college football.
You better be ready week in and week out. There are no games that are bigger than the next. This just happens to be the next one against a tough opponent in their stadium. But our approach won’t be any different.
When it comes to his star running back, Pelini carefully chose his words when asked whether Abdullah is 100 percent, but thinks he should be good to go.
"Yeah, but I’m not a doctor," Pelini said. "I don’t know how it’s going to play out. We go a little bit off of how he’s feeling. We’ll find out Saturday.”
So this is the game we've all been waiting for. The loser is effectively out of the Big Ten West division race, as they would be a game back without the tie-breaker with two games to play. The winner has to survive a home game against Minnesota and a trip to Kinnick Stadium to play Iowa to make it to Indianapolis.
In typical fashion for this season, the Badgers start slowly, punting on each of their first two drives, but the Cornhuskers can only scratch three points out of their first three possessions. As the first quarter winds to a close, McEvoy takes a zone read and runs to the Nebraska 3-yard line before being dragged down.
Two plays later, Gordon punches it in to make it 7-3 as the clock expires on the first quarter. Nebraska mounts a drive on the ensuing possession, but a sack by Landisch kills the drive in its tracks, made worse by a missed field goal to give the ball back to the Badgers on a nippy November day.
Stave strings together consecutive completions to Sam Arneson before taking a shot downfield for Alex Erickson that is finally hauled in after two unsuccessful tries earlier in the game to make it 14-3, which ends up being the score heading into halftime.
The third quarter opens with a trademark Gordon carry as he takes the ball around the left end on an end-around and scampers 64 yards before getting tackled at the 13. Clement then comes in and on the next play takes it the rest of the distance to the end zone.
Bottled up until this point, on the next drive Abdullah takes a wheel route to the house, similar to the one given up last week against Purdue by Akeem Hunt, to cut the deficit to 21-10.
Turning the offense into a vanilla mess, a Stave interception in Badger territory sets up a short field for the Cornhuskers, but thanks to a timely deflection by Sojourn Shelton, the Badgers are able to hold the Cornhuskers to just a field goal as the third quarter ends 21-13.
With the sun setting on a cold Wisconsin afternoon, Gordon shows the world and Heisman voters just why he is considered the top back in the country, driving his legs forward on run after run to ice away the game, finally punching the ball in from four yards out and capping off a 12-play, six-minute drive to make it 28-13.
Nebraska mounts a furious charge, scoring with under a minute to play, but can't recover the onside kick. It falls to the Badgers, 28-20, with Gordon racking up 167 rushing yards to Abdullah's 93 rushing yards and 62 receiving yards.
Wisconsin 28, Nebraska 20