Nebraska (0-2 Big Ten, 0-4 overall) and No. 16 Wisconsin (1-0, 3-1) are on opposite paths as the Huskers head into Camp Randall for a Big Ten rivalry game on Saturday night.
No one is more aware of those opposite paths than first-year Nebraska coach Scott Frost, whose team is winless in four straight games to open the season and have lost eight straight overall, including its most recent misstep, a 42-28 home lost to Purdue.
Heading into the season, expectations for the Cornhuskers were low, and Frost preached trusting the process after signing a seven-year, $35 million deal. Shortly after becoming head coach, Frost said that he was shocked in the way that the historic Nebraska football program had deteriorated over the 18 years that he had been absent from it.
The dominant Cornhusker teams of the 1980s and 1990s served as an original blueprint for what has become Wisconsin's identity: winning on the lines, developing in-state talent and walk-ons. Now the roles have been reversed, as it's Frost and Nebraska looking to the Badgers as a model. Nebraska has been atypically undisciplined this season with 36 penalties for 293 yards. Frost said in a press conference this week that his players could learn from watching Wisconsin this week.
"They never beat themselves, which has been the polar opposite of what we've been," Frost said. "You don't see them make any kind of mistakes that will get them beat. They're solid at every position, obviously good on the front lines on both sides.”
Although Nebraska has struggled with eliminating mental mistakes, they seemed to have found their offensive identity last week against Purdue, putting up 582 yards of total offense. Despite all the offense, the Huskers struggled to convert in third downs as they were just four of 12 on third-down conversions on the day. Moving the chains has been a problem all season for a unit that converts third downs just 32 percent of the time, a rate that ranks 117th in the FBS.
Nebraska's inability to convert on third downs has been the major culprit for their offensive struggles. The Huskers come to Camp Randall averaging 21.2 point per game, which gives them the 115th best scoring offense in the country.
The main source of their offensive output has come from true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who has completed 61 percent of his passes for 532 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Not only has Martinez been hurting teams with his arms, but the dual-threat quarterback is the second leading rusher for the Cornhuskers with 196 yards and two scores on the ground.
“I think, one he’s very talented, and two, it seems like he’s got good poise,” head coach Paul Chryst said about Martinez. “Watching [him on film], he makes you defend, I think him and their offense, will make you defend the whole field and really the whole play.”
Wisconsin's depth at a key position on each side of the ball will be tested Saturday night.
Offensively, Wisconsin is shorthanded at tight end after their best blocker, senior Zander Neuville, sustained a knee injury in practice and was ruled out for the season. Fellow tight end Luke Benzschawel is also questionable with a right leg injury. Without Benzschawel, the Badgers would likely be unable to deploy their "13" package, featuring a trio of tight ends.
The Badgers also enter with question marks at cornerback, where three players were listed as questionable on the Thursday injury report. Early-season starters Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams were both on the report: Hicks with a right arm injury and Williams for his left leg. Backup Travian Blaylock was also listed as questionable. If one or both of Hicks and Williams can't play up to their normal levels, it'll leave Wisconsin's secondary vulnerable to Nebraska's receivers, who Chryst called the best the Badgers have faced this
The Badgers have won five straight games against Nebraska, and no current Huskers player has ever posted a win over Wisconsin.
Chryst noted that the game will be competitive despite Nebraska's rough start because, after all, it is rivalry game.
"I know the games that I've been able to be a part of, they've been big games," Chryst said. "You know they're going to be four quarter-plus games. And our players know that. Just recently, the games that we've had, you've got to fight and you've got to earn everything you get."