The Big Ten Conference opener is upon us as the 22nd-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers set to host the Wisconsin Badgers.
Both teams won three of their four non-league games, and the Badgers come in riding a modest two-game win streak after posting hard-fought wins over Utah State (16-14) and UTEP (37-26). Last week’s victory over the Miners was the 19th straight at home for Wisconsin, which returns to Madison following this bout to battle Illinois next weekend.
UW has won five straight conference games dating back to last season, but the Badgers are just 1-5 in Big Ten road openers under current head coach Bret Bielema.
Nebraska too has won two in a row following its lone setback of the campaign, a 36-30 loss at UCLA on Sept. 8, whipping the likes of Arkansas State and Idaho State by a combined score of 115-20. The Huskers, who will be donning new alternate uniforms for this clash, got a scare in the ASU game as head coach Bo Pelini was transported to the hospital at halftime due to an undisclosed illness, but everything checked out and he was back on the sidelines during last week’s 73-7 rout of its overmatched FCS foe, Idaho State.
While the all-time series between these two teams is tied at 3-3, Nebraska has won both previous meetings on its home field. Wisconsin easily won last year’s tussle in Madison, 48-17, but this is its visit to Lincoln since 1973.
With star RB Montee Ball forced out of the game early due to a head injury, backups Melvin Gordon and James White helped power the Badgers past the visiting UTEP Miners last Saturday. The UW offense churned out a season-high 213 yards and four TDs on the ground, with Gordon logging 112 yards and a score, and White finding the end zone twice in tallying 65 yards. Freshman QB Joel Stave made his first career start and completed 12-of-17 passes for 210 yards, hitting WR Jared Abbrederis six times for a career-high 147 yards and a TD.
For the season, the Badgers are averaging 21.5 ppg, doing so behind a rushing attack that accounts for 143.0 ypg, and an aerial assault that adds 169.8 ypg. Ball is the catalyst, running for 360 yards and three TDs to this point, while support has come from both White (134 yards, two TDs) and Gordon (130 yards, one TD). Stave and former starter Danny O’Brien have combined to complete 61.7 percent of their passes for 679 yards, four TDs and two INTs. Abbrederis has a team-high 13 receptions for 257 yards and three scores.
The UW defense held the Miners to just 77 net rushing yards last week, and LB Chris Borland logged 12 tackles, which included two of the team’s four sacks on the day. The Badgers finished with nine TFL and eight PBU, and they have 21 TFL and 31 PBU for the season.
Borland is just six tackles off the team-leading pace set by Mike Taylor (40), and the two have combined for nine TFL and seven PBU. Borland is the only Badger to have multiple sacks this year (three). Remarkably, the UW defense has only come up with one turnover through four games, that being a fumble recovery last week against UTEP.
Wisconsin’s strength on defense is its ability to shut down the run, as opponents are averaging just 80.8 ypg and have scored only one rushing TD.
Bielema knows it won’t be easy, but he likes the makeup of his team heading into this conference opener.
” It’s a tremendous challenge to go on the road and win the way you want to in this league so that’s an opportunity that we have in front of us. We get better every week, the team has the right attitude, like I said I don’t have any worries about the way guys handle their work during the course of the week and we will see where we are Saturday.”
The Cornhuskers scored early and often in last Saturday’s rout of Idaho State, as RB Rex Burkhead started things off with a career-long 61-yard run a little more than three minutes into the game. When the dust settled a few hours later, the Nebraska offense had amassed 385 yards on the ground, 569 total, and scored TDs on all five of its trips to the red zone. Burkhead finished with 119 yards and two TDs, while RB Imani Cross added 100 yards and a score of his own. QB Taylor Martinez threw for 165 yards and two TDs, and star WR Kenny Bell was limited to just one grab for a career-long 68-yard score near the end of the first half.
The Huskers are lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 48.5 ppg this season, doing so behind a punishing rushing attack that produces 317.5 ypg and has already accounted for 14 TDs. With Martinez connecting on nearly 71 percent of his pass attempts, the team is averaging another 224.5 ypg through the air, and the junior signal-caller has thrown nine TD passes against only one INT. Bell has just 11 catches this season, but four have been for TDs.
The NU defense held Idaho State to 31 net rushing yards, came up with three turnovers and logged a whopping seven sacks, 2.5 of which were credited to DE Eric Martin last week. All five of Martin’s stops on the day were in the Bengals’ backfield.
Nebraska also got TDs on an INT return and a punt return, the latter being one of two scores attributed to RB Ameer Abdullah on the day.
The Huskers are permitting 19.0 ppg this season, the bulk of which came in the first two weeks rather than in the last two, and foes have earned an even split in averaging 177 ypg rushing and 175.2 ypg passing. Will Compton sits atop the team’s total tackles list with 34, and the defensive unit as a whole has logged 39 TFL and 16 sacks, but only seven turnovers.
Pelini knows that there isn’t a whole lot to take out of last week’s laugher, except for the fact that his team kept its focus throughout.
“It’s really easy to have a letdown or look ahead, but it’s first things first. You have to have respect for the game and how you play it. I thought our guys did that.”