The Wisconsin Badgers (5-5, 3-4), looking to rebound from an inexcusable and costly loss at Iowa, travel to Lincoln to take on the lowly Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-7, 2-5) this Saturday at 11 a.m.
In five games under Interim Head Coach Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin has taken care of business at Camp Randall Stadium and posted two quality wins. On the road, however, it’s been a different story — offensive futility and a revolving door of other issues have resulted in a pair of avoidable losses to middling conference opponents.
Nebraska, with an offense which has struggled in recent weeks and a defense nearing the end of a miserable 2022 season, projects to be a pushover even for the painfully inconsistent Badgers.
To claw their way back above .500 and hand the Cornhuskers their fifth consecutive loss, the Badgers need to revive and lean on their running attack. Further, they must avoid the back-breaking mistakes which plagued their offense and special teams versus Iowa.
A note on Devin Chandler
Former Wisconsin wide receiver Devin Chandler, one of three Virginia Cavaliers shot and killed while seeing a play in Washington D.C. on Sunday night, has drawn effusive praise and mournful remarks this week from his Badger teammates.
Although Leonhard expects everyone to make the trip and play in Nebraska, he acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.
“It's tough because I want our guys to understand those emotions are real and I'm not trying to make them eat them and move on," Leonhard said. "We'd never ask them to do that. But at the same time, we have to prepare for a game, and we have to find a way to win on Saturday. I give them a lot of credit. They've been through a ton."
It remains to be seen if Wisconsin’s performance is affected by the sudden and tragic loss of their beloved former teammate.
Nebraska offense vs. Wisconsin defense
A progressively tougher schedule has not been kind to Nebraska’s offense in 2022. The Cornhuskers averaged 492 total yards through their first three games but have managed only 308 yards per game in the seven contests since. Overall, they rank ninth in the conference in total offense and 10th in scoring with 23.3 points per game.
The unit has been a display of punts, turnovers and overall ineffectiveness since starting quarterback Casey Thompson got injured early in the Oct. 29 loss to Illinois. Thompson should return to start this Saturday, although his status may remain unclear until closer to the game.
Thompson averaged 230 yards over his first seven games and, in a show of consistency, threw either one or two touchdowns in each outing. That said, the junior was also steady in taking sacks — multiple in six of seven games — and throwing interceptions — 10 total and six over his last 10 quarters of play.
While an improvement over Nebraska’s backup options, Thompson shouldn’t strike too much fear in a Badger pass defense which yielded 171 total passing yards over the last two weeks and has surrendered only one 300-yard passing performance all season — Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell with substantial garbage time yardage.
Trey Palmer will be among the best wide receivers Wisconsin faces this year. His 831 yards rank fourth in the Big Ten, as do his 58 receptions. Marcus Washington has been a threat, too, with 26 catches for 403 yards.
Skilled as these receivers are, they seem unlikely to exploit Wisconsin’s outside coverage like wideouts for Ohio State and Michigan State did earlier in the season. The demotion of Ricardo Hallman and concurrent emergence of Alexander Smith, along with Hunter Wohler’s return as the third safety, have patched holes in Jim Leonhard’s secondary. The group is well-equipped to shut down Thompson’s passing game, especially considering Nebraska’s recent struggles on the ground.
While running back Anthony Grant boasts impressive season-long rushing numbers (880 yards, 4.7 per carry, six touchdowns), he’s slowed down in the latter half of the campaign. Grant has averaged 56 yards per game over his last five, most recently sputtering with 22 yards on 11 carries versus Michigan last week.
Run defense hasn’t been much of an issue for the Badgers since the Ohio State game in Week 4. Don’t expect it to become one in Lincoln.
Last week was only Wisconsin’s second game without a defensive interception. To counter a Badger secondary second in the Big Ten with 15 picks, Thompson figures to run a very conservative passing attack. He certainly will if Wisconsin’s offense is ineffective.
Wisconsin offense vs. Nebraska defense
Defense is a more glaring weakness for the three-win Cornhuskers, who have allowed 29.9 points and 438 yards per game. Within the conference, only Indiana has prevented yards or points more poorly than Nebraska.
Michigan just ran for 264 yards versus Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have also yielded 200-plus yard rushing performances to Purdue (217), Oklahoma (312) and Northwestern (214). Of 10 opponents, five have tallied multiple rushing touchdowns.
If there was ever an opportunity for a bounce back performance, it’d be this Saturday for Braelon Allen and Isaac Guerendo. After combining for 64 yards in the Iowa loss, the running backs could put up massive numbers this week and take some — or all — of the pressure off Graham Mertz.
The Badger quarterback somehow played worse in Iowa than his 16-of-35, 176-yard, two-interception statline suggests. Although it’s unlikely he’ll need to be a hero this week, he does need to avoid crippling errors and give the Wisconsin defense long fields to defend.
Nebraska has allowed under 180 passing yards in each of its last three games, but without an interception. If Mertz plays similarly to Iowa’s Spencer Petras last week — unproductive, yet interception-free football — he’ll give the Badgers a strong chance on Saturday.
Wisconsin would certainly benefit from improved pass protection after Mertz absorbed four sacks a week ago. While the Cornhuskers as a team haven’t posted impressive sack totals (17, 10th in the conference), defensive end Garrett Nelson has 5.5 sacks, 51 tackles and two passes defensed. Keeping his hands off Mertz and out of the air would go a long way in helping the Badger passing game bounce back.
Playing for pride
With last week’s loss making a Big Ten West title all but impossible, this week is little more than a chance to avoid further embarrassment.
Additionally, a loss to the terrible Cornhuskers may not do Leonhard any favors. If the university is still conducting a head coaching search, surely they can’t ignore a three-loss — or four-loss — record in seven games as the interim. While the team has improved in multiple areas since Paul Chryst’s firing, its lack of consistency versus inferior opponents has continued.
For example, special teams were a positive for the Badgers for much of the season until they were on the wrong end of three game-altering punt plays in Iowa. Issues with punt protection and punt coverage are fixable. It’s up to Wisconsin’s coaches to address them in practice.
Stay tuned to The Daily Cardinal and @cardinal_sports on Twitter for a comprehensive recap following the game, as well as coverage of several other Wisconsin sports.