Wisconsin continues its run through the Big Ten conference schedule this week as it hits the road to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-0 Big Ten, 3-2 overall). Nebraska, thus far, has defeated Arkansas State, Rutgers and Illinois, while losing to Oregon and Northern Illinois. The NIU loss was its first loss to a non-Power-5 conference school since 2004. The Cornhuskers may be off to a disappointing start, but they will surely bring their A-game at home under the lights against the Badgers. Here are 3 things each team should focus on if they want to win.
1.Put pressure on Tanner Lee
Nebraska redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Lee hasn’t gotten off to the best start this year in Lincoln. The Tulane transfer currently leads the nation in interceptions with nine, and many at bad times. Three have been returned for touchdowns, and he had four picks in their loss to Oregon with one late in the fourth quarter that all but sealed the win for the Ducks. He also is 12th out of 15 qualifying quarterbacks in the Big Ten in Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), and beleaguered head coach Mike Riley has faced questions about Lee’s status as the starter going forward. Still, Nebraska’s passing blunders can’t be solely attributed to Lee, as the offensive line has allowed numerous sacks and QB hurries. Accordingly, new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard should utilize pass rushers like senior linebacker Garret Dooley to apply the heat when Lee drops back.
2. Shut down their outside receivers
Despite inconsistent quarterback play, Nebraska junior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. and senior receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El are off to fast starts. Both Morgan and Pierson-El have over 300 yards for the Huskers, doing Morgan ranks 33rd in the country with 395 receiving yards so far this year, and Pierson-El isn’t too far behind with 304. Both receivers have reached the endzone four times. Morgan has racked up at least 5 receptions and 94 yards in his first four games (he missed their game against Rutgers due to injury), including a 7-catch, 103 yard performance against Oregon that included 2 touchdowns. Pierson-El also had an 8-catch, 101 yard effort against Northern Illinois. With its starting running back, sophomore Tre Bryant, looking doubtful to play, the Cornhuskers’ offense will be more dependent on the passing game, and both of these pass-catchers have shown they can be a headache for secondaries. Simply put, it would be wise for the defense to pay extra attention to these two.
3. Throw the ball more often early
Nebraska ranks 85th in the country and second-to-last in the Big Ten in pass defense, giving up an average of 228 yards a game. While its defense has tightened up in recent weeks, its secondary was shredded by Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen, who picked them apart for 415 yards and 3 touchdowns. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert had similar success, as he was able to throw for 365 yards and 3 scores. Meanwhile, Badgers sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook leads the Big Ten with a 176.8 quarterback rating, and his 66.7 percent completion percentage ranks second in the conference. The Cornhuskers might also have to deal with Troy Fumagalli, the Preseason All-American tight end who could potentially return after missing the Badgers last game against Northwestern with a foot injury. Although Jonathan Taylor is off to a great start running the football for the Badgers, Nebraska has shown they can competently defend the run, ranking in the top-40 in the country in run defense. Therefore, head coach Paul Chryst should consider taking a few deep shots early in the game to keep Nebraska’s secondary honest.
1. Get out to an early lead
While this may seem like somewhat of a given, getting out to an early lead is crucial for the Cornhuskers if they want to have a chance of winning this game. Firstly, Nebraska has the advantage of playing at home under the lights, and the 90,000 fans that will inevitably pack Memorial Stadium in Lincoln should be out in full force. Getting the crowd excited early with a quick score or turnover would surely give them a ton of momentum. Secondly, Wisconsin has been prone to slow starts so far this season. They were tied 10-10 at halftime with heavy underdog Utah State in week one, and trailed 10-7 at the break last week against Northwestern. The Badgers have shown they are more than capable of making halftime adjustments and playing better in the second half, but if Nebraska gets off to a fast start, it may be too much for the Badgers to overcome.
2. Stop the run
For years, Wisconsin has been notorious among Big Ten defenses for its ability to run the ball. Its typically enormous offensive linemen and talented ball-carriers like Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon have given defensive coordinators nightmares, and freshman Jonathan Taylor appears to be next in line. His 518 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns rank 15th and 10th in the country respectively, and his numbers are similar to those of Heisman frontrunner Saquon Barkley, who ranks just six spots ahead of Taylor in rushing yards and has three fewer rushing touchdowns. The Nebraska defense, however, has shown they can handle the run. They rank 37th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game, ahead of teams like No. 3 Oklahoma (40th) and No. 4 Penn State (57th). In their three wins, the Cornhuskers have held their opponents to under 100 total rushing yards. As such, they should focus early on slowing the Badgers’ ground attack by putting eight or even nine defenders in the box and blitzing linebackers to close up potential running lanes. This would shift much of the offensive burden onto Alex Hornibrook, who has been accurate and efficient this year but has also functioned in more of a secondary role behind Taylor and the running game. Forcing Hornibrook to beat the Nebraska defense with his arm and disrupting the Badgers’ play-calling flow would make it difficult for them to move the ball consistently and give more opportunities to the Cornhuskers’ offense to put points on the board.
3. Control time of possession and tempo
Wisconsin has been most effective offensively when they control time of possession. They’ve held the ball longer than its opponent in three of its four wins this year, even holding it for over 40 minutes in its win over BYU. The Badgers often utilize their ground-based attack to grind out long drives that wear out the clock as well as opposing defenses, and usually a team can’t score much if their quarterback is wearing a hat on the sidelines instead of a helmet on the field. Nebraska can actually achieve this goal by fulfilling the first two keys. Both jumping out to an early lead and stopping the run would force Wisconsin to pass more frequently, which takes less time off the clock. The Cornhuskers could also force the issue by using a no-huddle offense, which, if they score early, could throw the Wisconsin offense out of rhythm.