Some suggest Wisconsin does not belong due to its 7-5 record, but Nebraska fans no better than to take the Badgers lightly. When these clubs met in Lincoln on September 29, Wisconsin owned a 27-10 lead midway into the third quarter when the Cornhuskers mounted a comeback; Nebraska won, 30-27.
The rematch (Saturday, FOX, 8:17 p.m. ET) should be even better. With the exception of Wisconsin’s quarterback situation, both teams are closer to full strength than they have been for some time. Here is how the game will match up …
Passing: Doesn’t seem right to even include this. Passing? For the Cornhuskers and Badgers!? To be fair, Taylor Martinez has been the Big Ten’s most improved passer from a year ago, and he ranks third in the conference for passing efficiency (21 touchdowns, eight interceptions). Curt Phillips is not much of a threat. If Wisconsin still had freshman Joel Stave this would be a different story, but Phillips lacks confidence and will have a hard team keeping Nebraska’s defense honest. The Cornhuskers defense has allowed just 12 touchdown passes in 12 games, and opposing quarterbacks have completed just 45.5 percent of their attempts. ADVANTAGE: Nebraska.
Rushing: It really depends on which Wisconsin team we see in Indianapolis. At times this year the Badgers have had trouble gaining a foot; other weeks they’ve performed as well as fans would expect. Montee Ball is still the main force, but James White offers a good change of pace and Melvin Gordon is sure to pick up yards when they use him on end arounds. The Cornhuskers are excited to have Rex Burkhead back, but he was a non-factor in the first meeting; Taylor Martinez made the difference (107 yards). But with linebacker Chris Borland back, the Badgers have all of their key players in place for the league’s second-best run defense (3.4 yards a carry). ADVANTAGE: Wisconsin.
Special teams: Brett Maher’s success rate on field goals is not great (75 percent) but he’s been much more reliable than Kyle French, who has Badgers fans scared every time he lines up for a kick. French has made 10 of 15 field goals and has missed two extra points. The punting game is even, but the Cornhuskers are much better (and more consistent) in the return game. ADVANTAGE: Nebraska.
Coaching: One could make the argument that Bret Bielema and his staff are just as responsible for the team’s five close losses as the players. Wisconsin became terribly conservative in overtime against Ohio State, and the playcalling was atrocious in the final quarter against Penn State. It’s nothing new. Many Wisconsin fans feel game management cost Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl losses the past two seasons. All Bo Pelini must do is play it cool and stick to what his team does best and he’ll win this “matchup” on Saturday. ADVANTAGE: Nebraska.
Prediction: Nebraska 28, Wisconsin 24
Wisconsin had the Cornhuskers beat in the regular season meeting, only to let them back into the game – a familiar theme for the Badgers this year. The Cornhuskers are the better team on paper – in record and statistics – but Wisconsin always plays best when no one gives them a fighting chance.
– B1G Notes –
• Ohio State’s Braxton Miller is one of the 10 remaining finalists for the Manning Award. The winner will be announced on January 9. In helping the Buckeyes to an undefeated season, Miller passed for 2.039 yards and 15 touchdowns, and rushed for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns.
• Wisconsin’s Montee Ball already owns the career touchdown record, but he still needs a rushing score to take over sole possession of the career record for most touchdowns on the ground.
Mike Beacom is the Big Ten football editor for Lindy’s. Follow him on Twitter @mikebeacom