Another week, another trophy matchup in the Big Ten West as No. 14 Wisconsin (4-2 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) faces off with Nebraska (2-4 Big Ten, 4-5 overall) Saturday in the sixth edition of the battle for the Freedom Trophy. The trophy, named to honor United States veterans, depicts half of Camp Randall Stadium--built on a Civil War training ground--and half of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium with a large American flag in the middle.
It’s been a long year for head coach Scott Frost and the Cornhuskers. Despite a 4-8 record last season, Nebraska came into the year ranked No. 24, thanks in large part to Frost’s success at UCF and quarterback Adrian Martinez’ breakout into a Hesiman trophy candidate.
Martinez started 11 games as a true freshman in 2018 and his final numbers were dazzling. The Fresno, California native completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 2617 yards with a 17/8 touchdown/interception ratio, and scrambled for 614 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
However, the dual-threat quarterback has regressed on those numbers this season. Martinez stumbled out of the gate on 13/22 passing, 178 yards, and an interception against a very bad South Alabama team in week one. The Cornhuskers were outgained by South Alabama in total yards, first downs, and time of possession. Then, following a 34-31 OT loss at Colorado in week two, the hype surrounding Nebraska died down significantly. Now, sitting at 4-5 with losses to Indiana and Purdue, Nebraska needs a couple of upset wins just to become bowl eligible.
It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong for this Cornhusker team that entered the season as Big Ten West favorites, but one of the pressing issues has been the defense’s inability to prevent the big play. Holding a late lead at Colorado, the defensive unit allowed back-to-back touchdown drives of 96 yards and 75 yards in a combined 2:04 minutes. They were torched for 368 rushing yards hosting Ohio State--though to be fair nobody has slowed down Ohio State through nine games this season. Two weeks ago, a hapless Purdue offense put another nail in the coffin for Nebraska’s season with 31 points--including a game-winning 12-play, 82-yard touchdown drive led by the Boilermakers’ third-string quarterback.
All of this bodes well for a Wisconsin team that needs a win to stay alive in its division. Nebraska has had a historically tough time stopping Wisconsin’s run attack, allowing an average of 312 rushing yards-per-game to the Badgers over their last eight matchups. UW running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 221 yards on 22 carries against the Cornhusker defense last season, including a season-long 88-yard touchdown run straight up the middle of the field.
As Taylor’s career (probably) dwindles down ahead of his declaration for the NFL Draft, don’t expect him to play it safe, or put less than 100 percent in. He reiterated in his postgame presser following a 250-yard performance against Iowa last weekend how determined he and the offense are to winning ballgames and “moving the chains.”
This matchup Saturday doesn’t carry nearly the national spotlight that it expected to earlier this summer, but there’s only three regular season Wisconsin football games left until next August so we might as well savor every moment of it. If Wisconsin wins, all eyes will turn to Minnesota’s matchup at Kinnick Stadium against Iowa; the Badgers will probably need a Hawkeye win to keep Minnesota from clinching a Big Ten West division title in the next two weeks.