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Thursday, June 08, 2023

Big Ten slate begins

Saturday night’s tilt at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. will feature two of the best running backs in the country. ??Each is still looking to get in a real groove for the first time in 2012.

Wisconsin’s senior All-American Montee Ball (393 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, 3 TDs) carried the ball more than 30 times two of the first three weeks, but a head injury limited him to just nine carries a week ago.  

Nebraska senior Rex Burkhead sprained his knee in the No. 22 Huskers’ (3-1 overall) opener Sept. 1 and only returned last week. He has just 11 carries so far this season but has averaged a whopping 17 yards per carry to rack up 187 yards and three scores.

“He’s got power,” UW linebackers coach Andy Buh said of Burkhead. “He has all the attributes of a good running back plus power on top of that. The minute you think you have good leverage and you’ve got your feet in the ground and you’re going to tackle him, now he packs a punch. We’ve got to be able to lower our pads and go blow-for-blow with him.”

The Badgers (3-1 overall) are one of just three teams in the nation that has not allowed a running play of more than 20 yards so far this season.  A year ago, the unit kept Burkhead and explosive junior quarterback Taylor Martinez in check and limited Nebraska to just 3.7 yards per carry in a 45-17 win. Against Nebraska’s potent option attack, discipline is paramount.

“If one person isn’t fitting in the right spot, there’s a gap and they’re hitting it because they’ve got someone that can get there,” Badgers redshirt junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. “They’ve got the speed that can really get away from you.”

The Wisconsin linebacking corps is one of the most productive in the nation this year. Armstrong plays alongside bigger names in junior Chris Borland—the reigning Big Ten co-defensive player of the week—and senior Mike Taylor. ??Still, Armstrong’s strong-side position often leaves him in charge of manning the wide side of the field in Wisconsin’s base 4-3 defense. Against the dynamic Nebraska attack of Martinez, Burkhead and sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah (416 yards, 6.0 ypc, 5 TDs), covering all that space is a tall task for the Ottawa, Ill. native.

“It kind of puts me in a pickle there,” said Armstrong, the team’s third-leading tackler (26). “It’s a very stressful situation, but I’ve been coached well on it and hopefully I can go out and execute the techniques.”

The Badgers forced Martinez to throw the ball last year and found success, as he threw three interceptions at Camp Randall. Through four games, the signal-caller is completing over 70 percent of his passes and has nine touchdowns and just one interception. Still, his legs are what make him so dangerous.

“He’s a really gifted runner obviously, so we’re going to try to keep him in the pocket, rush the passer a little bit, make him throw the ball and see how the game goes,” UW junior defensive tackle Beau Allen said.

For the Wisconsin offense, the task will be to continue the improvements seen a week ago against Texas-El Paso despite a step up in competition. Early against UTEP, first-time starting quarterback Joel Stave took two third-down sacks where pass rushers came free.

?Nebraska’s defense leads the NCAA in sacks so far with 16.

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“He is very aware of where people are in the pocket,” redshirt junior Travis Frederick said of the redshirt freshman quarterback. “He got hit a couple times last week, but I think he knew those guys were coming.”

Still, the Huskers are giving up 177 rushing yards per game, something the Badgers will have to take advantage of in a hostile environment. If Ball is at full strength, he will likely see a heavy dose of carries. If not, redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon and junior James White will be asked to carry the load. Either way, Frederick does not believe the game plan will change much.

“For me, I just do whatever they tell me to, but I don’t think it’s much different [who’s running],” he said. “Those guys all have their own styles, their own strengths and weaknesses, but they are all good at one thing, and that’s running the ball.”

UPDATE: Redshirt junior defensive lineman David Gilbert will sit for Wisconsin's first defensive play. Gilbert made comments about Martinez "skipping rocks" this season, referencing the quarterback's pass attempts.

"[Gilbert] will be skipping rocks on the sideline with me for the first play," head coach Bret Bielema said.

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