The lights at Camp Randall will be fired back up for the second time in three weeks as the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-0 Big Ten, 7-0 overall) come to town to take on the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers (2-2 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) in a matchup that could have championship implications.
With the Badgers showing two marks in their loss column, they will need to win this game to keep the pressure on Nebraska, which travels to Ohio next week to take on the talented Buckeyes. If the Badgers can mount another win versus their budding rival, a rematch with either Ohio State or Michigan will become that much more likely.
However, that isn’t at all what the Badgers are focused on. With the backend of the season now upon them, the players in cardinal and white are more aware now than ever of the stakes of each remaining game, and aren’t looking at the finish line just yet.
“All I’m thinking about is straight Nebraska. They’re undefeated and we lost two, and I want them to leave here losing one,” junior safety D’Cota Dixon said. “That's my biggest focus, and I think that’s the whole team’s really. No one has been talking about Big Ten or playoff opportunities.”
Dixon and the rest of the Wisconsin roster have to get through a Nebraska team that has kept a clean record with solid defense and consistent play from senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., a mobile signal-caller who has improved as a passer and is the Huskers second leading rusher with 380 yards on the ground.
Armstrong’s biggest liability in the past has been turnovers, but the dual-threat Texas native has thrown only five interceptions on the season, showing some real improvement with his ball security.
But mobile quarterbacks are nothing new to the Wisconsin defense this season; junior outside linebacker Garret Dooley saw extended time versus OSU’s J.T. Barrett and understands the challenges a quarterback like Armstrong can present to a defense.
“You have to be conscious that there is a scrambling quarterback in the backfield. Armstrong is a great athlete and he can move, so we need to keep him in the pocket so that he doesn't break out and get one of those big long runs,” Dooley said. “The outside backer group, D-line, inside backer group, we all need to just do our job and when we get a chance, bring him down.”
With the loss of inside linebacker and leading tackler Jack Cichy, the task may be easier said than done for a Badger team that allowed the last dual-threat passer 226 yards passing, 92 yards rushing and three total scores.
Armstrong isn’t Barrett, however, and Nebraska hasn't seen a defense like the Badgers, even without Cichy.
Prior to this game, the top defenses Nebraska has seen are Indiana, which holds onto the 49th spot in total defense as well as scoring defense, and Northwestern, which ranks 32nd in scoring and 72nd in total defense. Contrast that with Wisconsin’s overall ranking of fourth in scoring and ninth in total defense, and it appears the visitors may be in for a rude awakening when they visit the land of cheese.
Riding that success, the Badgers defense is coming into the game with plenty of confidence.
“We have one of the best defenses in the country,” Dooley said. “One of our biggest things is just being more physical than other people. I think we are going to be able to maintain the standard that we hold for ourselves and we are going to make big plays on defense.”
While the team is confident, they are also cognizant of the chip on Nebraska’s shoulder following the last two unforgettable contests. Each side’s fans remember the game in which Melvin Gordon ran for what seemed like miles over the Nebraska defense. Last year’s matchup was equally heartbreaking for the Cornhuskers, as the Badgers snuck out of Memorial Stadium with a last second field goal from Rafael Gaglianone, stealing a 30-27 win over their conference foe on the road.
Both teams will come into Saturday night with plenty to play for: the Freedom Trophy, a possible spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and bragging rights for another year. Neither team can afford a loss at this point in the season, and the matchup promises to be another memorable one for these two passionate fanbases.
The game kicks off at 6 p.m. in Madison, Wis., and will be broadcast on ESPN.