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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Wisconsin vs. Nebraska: Keys to the game

INDIANAPOLIS—When No. 14 Nebraska (10-2 overall, 7-1 Big Ten) and Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4) square off here tonight, an appearance in the Rose Bowl will be on the line. The Badgers have made the trip to Pasadena, Calif. and lost each of the last two years, while the Cornhuskers—previously of the Big 12 Conference—have made just two appearances in school history, losing to Stanford in 1941 and Miami in 2002. 

As the clock winds toward kickoff, here are four things to watch tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

Repeat performers 

The Badgers played in the Big Ten Football Championship Game a year ago, defeating Michigan State 42-39, making the conference’s inaugural title game a wild one. This week, UW players and coaches thought the experience would help in being prepared this year. 

“I think [playing last year] takes some of the majesty away from it,” redshirt senior strong safety Shelton Johnson said. “I know last year, we went in there and we were kind of in awe of the stadium and how it looked and how everything was set up. This being your second time around, you’re more used to that and you can focus more on playing the game. It eliminates distractions.”

Head coach Bret Bielema has a story about former Wisconsin quarterback Jim Sorgi, who played as a backup for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, multiple times. He said Sorgi told the coaches about some of the quirks of Lucas Oil Stadium.

“[Sorgi] told us about one endzone with the suites down there,” Bielema said. “He said on Sundays, when all those people are wearing Colts jerseys, it looks like 50 people are playing defense against you in the end zone.”

Bielema said former Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson made a special effort to take that into consideration before the game last year, and that redshirt senior Curt Phillips had been made aware of the same phenomenon.

In a small senior class, Phillips is one of the few players who did not experience the title game a year ago. He did not make the trip with the team while he was recovering from a third knee surgery. 

Like a year ago, Saturday’s game will also be a repeat of a regular season performance. The Cornhuskers knocked off the Badgers 30-27 in Lincoln, Neb. on Sept. 29. Nebraska lost to Ohio State the next week, but has won six-straight since. The Badgers are 4-3 since leaving Memorial Stadium and have lost three of their last four. The two sides will not be wholly familiar, though. Wisconsin was just getting settled with redshirt freshman Joel Stave as the starting quarterback then, and is now four games into the Phillips era after Stave broke his collarbone Oct. 27.

In addition, the Huskers allowed 27.7 points per game through their first six games, but just 19 since. 

“Nebraska’s defense has gotten better since we’ve played them,” UW wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said of the top-ranked pass defense unit in the conference. “Their secondary is very, very impressive. They’re very well coached, they’re big, they’re fast, they’re rangy and they fly around back there.”

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The Huskers offense had to adjust to life without star I-back Rex Burkhead, who has missed a total of six games this year—including four straight before carrying 16 times in the second half a week ago—to injury. Burkhead carried a season-high 18 times against the Badgers in September, but has just 34 total carries since and 64 on the season. He is averaging 7.5 yards per carry and, according to Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, is “100 percent” healthy.

Containing the running game

In building a 20-10 halftime lead in Lincoln, the Badgers held Nebraska to just 68 rushing yards. The Huskers then ran for 191 yards in the second half. By the time it was all said and done, junior quarterback Taylor Martinez had 107 yards, followed by Burkhead with 86 and sophomore Ameer Abdullah with 70.

Wisconsin got away with dropping linebackers into coverage early in the game, but Nebraska countered with regular quarterback draws and other delayed running plays, putting the UW linebackers in difficult positions. Since then, the Badgers have played well against athletic quarterbacks, including Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, who managed just 48 rushing yards and 97 passing yards Nov. 17 in Madison. 

“They’ve got a lot of one and two-offers, things that you only see once or twice over a couple of years and they can hurt you on game day,” UW free safety Dez Southward said. “A lot of time is spent on the plays that they run 15, 16, 17 times every game, but we also try to focus on those plays that they sprinkle in there because they can be the difference."

Inconsistent offense

The Badgers have developed a propensity for long unproductive streaks this season. A week ago against Penn State, UW rolled up 127 yards in its first two drives, jumping to an early 14-7 lead. Then, the offense punted eight consecutive times and Phillips threw a fourth-quarter interception. That stretch lasted over 40 minutes of game time and allowed the Nittany Lions to mount a 21-14 lead before Wisconsin tied the game in the closing minutes.

Similarly, UW jumped to a 20-10 lead against Nebraska in September, on the strength of 161 first-half passing yards from Stave. The Badgers mounted drives of 71, 65 and 53 yards before halftime, but managed just one possession that produced more than 25 yards in the second half.

At times, particularly with the lead, play-calling has been conservative. Other times, drops, penalties and struggles on third down have stalled drives. Since Stave was hurt Oct. 27, the passing game has struggled to find a consistent rhythm.

“We’ve had some drops, we’ve had some bad throws by me, we’ve had some penalties that have got us behind the chains, and we can’t afford that,” Phillips said. “Whenever it’s come down to crunch time, we’ve done pretty well, but we’ve got to find a way to have that urgency throughout the rest of the game.”

Wisconsin has not been able to throw the football down the field over the last few weeks, but Stave took advantage of man-coverage early against Nebraska in the first meeting. Whether or not the young UW receiving corps can be dangerous Saturday will greatly affect the Badgers offensive attack.

“We’ve had some great plays, but we had a couple crucial drops and they understand that if we’re only going to get 15 or 20 chances, as opposed to a spread offense that gets 45, we’ve got to make them,” Azzanni said 

Running backs

Oh, right. Nebraska and Wisconsin boast two of the deeper, talented backfields in the country. They’ll both be involved early and often. 

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