It’s safe to say Wisconsin (4-4 Big Ten, 7-5 overall) expected to be in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship for the second consecutive year prior to the season opener against Northern Iowa Sept. 1.
But stumbling into the rematch with Nebraska (7-1, 10-2) with three overtime losses over the last four games and starting three different quarterbacks throughout the season is the last thing the Badgers anticipated.
“It isn’t easy,” redshirt junior tight end Jacob Pedersen said of the quarterback carousel. “It’s not something you want to do. But I think our quarterbacks have handled it really well.”
What many Badgers keep reminding themselves of, though, is that they would be in the exact same position if they had ended up closing out the overtime thrillers, had a consistent rushing attack throughout the season and had one dominant quarterback leading the team from Day 1.
“One thing coach B[ielema] really has pointed out is that whether we’re 7-5 or 12-0, we’re still playing in this game with an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl,” redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips said.
For a little added motivation, the Badgers are yet again facing a team in Indianapolis they lost to earlier in the season. Wisconsin met Michigan State in last season’s inaugural Big Ten Championship game after falling to the Spartans on a last-second Hail Mary during the regular season.
The Badgers, who gave up a 17-point lead en route to a 30-27 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln Sept. 29, will meet the Cornhuskers again Saturday.
So does it feel different heading into the game this time around?
“No, not at all,” redshirt junior defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said bluntly. “I think it’s a very similar feeling. We feel confident and prepared.”
A healthy Nebraska senior running back Rex Burkhead—who finally got a healthy amount of carries last week in the Cornhuskers’ win against Iowa—presents cause for concern, though. He scored the go-ahead touchdown and ran for 69 yards on 16 carries, all in the second half.
Although the Badgers faced a similar running back last week in Penn State sophomore Zach Zwinak, redshirt senior safety Shelton Johnson says Burkhead’s abilities are unparalleled.
“[Zwinak] was more of a downhill, straight running at you type of dude,” he said. “Burkhead does have those capabilities but he also has very good feet.”
Burkhead has only carried the ball 63 times this season thanks to the nagging knee injury but still averages 7.5 yards per carry. He carried the ball 18 times for 86 yards against the Badgers Sept. 29, but sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah and senior quarterback Taylor Martinez more than stepped up in the second half. Each finished with over 7 yards per rush.
The presence of Johnson, redshirt senior defensive end Brendan Kelly and redshirt junior defensive end Tyler Dippel, all of whom missed the previous meeting with injuries, will be there to offset a potential second-half surge.
“You come back a little hungrier,” Armstrong said, who said he is motivated for Saturday’s in a similar fashion from not travelling with the team in last year’s Big Ten title game. “It means a little bit more to you. All those things add a little pep to your step.”
Although the balanced, three-headed rushing attack of Abdullah, Burkhead and Martinez has been in the spotlight leading up to Saturday, Bielema says the passing game shouldn’t go unnoticed from Martinez’s vast improvements throughout the year.
Martinez was 11-of-22 with three interceptions and no touchdowns in Wisconsin’s 48-17 drubbing of the Cornhuskers last year. He was 17-of-29 with one touchdown through the air in this season’s game.
“We all know he’s a good athlete,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. “We know he can run. But he’s very, very clean and precise in his throws, his reads, his reactions.”
Nebraska’s second team All-Big Ten (media) pick, sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell, racked up 789 yards on just 44 catches this year and had four catches for 57 yards against the Badgers Sept. 29.
“They definitely have some receivers that can stretch you vertically, as well,” Armstrong said. “We have to be sound in everything that we do.”