Fasten your seat belts Big Ten fans, because at approximately 2:30pm central time on Saturday, November 15th, the race for the B1G West division will all but be decided over the course of a 3 hour (most likely 4 hour) football game, as it’s the Wisconsin Badgers vs. Nebraska Cornhukers.
The two teams will be battling for the first-ever Freedom Trophy, a trophy some veterans are not too happy with and many fans wish would go back to the drawing board.
Technically, Minnesota is still in contention for the West division as well, but it would take not one, but two massive upsets in Lincoln and Madison (in back-to-back weeks no less) to pull it off.
Bo Pelini comes into Saturday’s matchup without a true road win over a ranked opponent since 2011. His last win over a ranked opponent was Penn State, and that game was played under some extenuating circumstances (that was the Jerry Sandusky Scandal week). Since that win in Happy Valley, Pelini’s Huskers are 0-5 in games played against ranked teams that were not held at the comfy confines of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska is still in contention for the college football playoff if they were to win their remaining 3 games as well as knock off No. 8 Ohio State in the B1G title game. But after being dropped 3 spots by the College Football Playoff committee on their bye week (from 13 to 16), it is clear that the college football selection committee wants to see Nebraska prove themselves on the field. This much is clear, a win at Camp Randell will look very good on any team’s playoff resume. Since 2004, Only LSU (69) and Ohio St (68) have recorded more wins at home than Wisconsin has (67).
Gary Andersen is currently in his second year at Wisconsin, and he has yet to record a “big” win to help win over some wavering fans who are unsure about the new head man. Saturday’s contest represents a great opportunity for coach Andersen to go ahead and get that first “big” win at Wisconsin.
The only other ranked team to visit Camp Randell since Andersen arrived in 2013 was the 19th ranked Northwestern Wildcats. That game was a 35-6 blowout in favor of Wisconsin. I would be surprised by anything less than a fantastic college football game come Saturday.
I am going to highlight some keys to look for on Saturday:
Keys for a Nebraska win:
1) Play a clean game – anything more than one turnover will be a lot to overcome on the road. Penalties will be drive killers against the top ranked Wisconsin defense. Nebraska needs a clean performance from its players to deliver a big win on the field.
2) Stay committed to the running game – regardless of star tailback Ameer Abdullah’s health, Nebraska must not fall in love with the pass against Wisconsin’s top ranked pass defense. Even if they don’t have immediate success running the ball, Tim Beck needs to stay patient and incorporate Tommy Armstrong and Imani Cross into the running game in order for it to be successful.
3) Defensively, don’t allow the big play – This one is much easier said than done against the top running back duo in the nation in Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. The defense needs to react much better to the jet sweep (which i can guarantee UW will run at some point) than they did in the teams last meeting in 2012. Wisconsin also likes to shoot for big plays in the passing game as well too keep opposing teams’ defensive backs honest. Gordon will get his, (averages approximately 166 rushing ypg) but holding Wisconsin to field goals in the red-zone will be a great indicator of the outcome. Gary Andersen’s record when Wisconsin scores more than 30 points is 12-1, with the lone loss at Arizona St (in which the officials completely mishandled the final seconds of the game).
Keys to a Wisconsin win:
1) Force Tommy Armstrong to beat you with his arm – Armstrong is one of the best running quarterbacks in the B1G, but the Huskers passing game isn’t especially strong. Wideouts Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp will receive most (if not all) of the targets when Nebraska does elect to pass. Wisconsin would much rather rush the passer anyways, as outside linebackers Vince Biegel and inside linebacker Derek Landisch will be looking to get after Armstrong with a variety of different blitzes and stunts at the line of scrimmage.
2) Be sound in special teams – Nebraska has a very deadly return game this season. Demornay Pierson-El has already taken 2 punt returns for scores and Ameer Abdullah has been returning kickoffs for the past few weeks. Gary Andersen was harping about how the punt and kickoff coverage units need to improve earlier this week. Field position could easily decide the game with a big return at a critical juncture. Wisconsin needs to be ready to go come Saturday.
3) Andy Ludwig needs to play to his quarterbacks’ individual strengths – This has improved in the past couple of games but it remains very important. Wisconsin uses a two quarterback system with two players with different skill sets. When Stave is in the game, keep him in the pocket and let him air it out on early downs to keep the huskers D off balance. When McEvoy is in the game, utilize his mobility by moving the pocket and running some triple option with Gordon/Clement in the backfield. If Ludwig can play to his quarterbacks strengths and not ask them to do too much, it will only make things easier on Saturday.
Whether the fanbases like it or not, this yearly matchup between perennial B1G powers is quickly blossoming into one of the B1G’s best rivalry games. If you are a fan of college football, Saturday’s 2:30 pm time slot has it all. Get your popcorn ready!