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MADISON - Although this season has not gone the way most fans or players envisioned, Wisconsin still has a chance of reaching its ultimate goal – heading to the Rose Bowl for the third straight season with a win Saturday.
Like a year ago, the Badgers will get a rematch with a team they previously lost to earlier in the season for the right to go to Pasadena. Nebraska will be a tough test, especially coming off back-to-back overtime losses.
In their previous matchup against the Cornhuskers, the Badgers were able to get off to a quick start but allowed Nebraska to crawl out of a 17-point deficit. A problem the Badgers have had all year is the inability to close out opponents and play a full four-quarter game. If Wisconsin can play consistently, it should be another great game.
You would think Wisconsin has learned from its mistakes, be able to rebound and put together a complete game for the first time this year, but that's a question we've been asking out loud since September.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week, and need. It was not easy determining who would be important in helping the Badgers to a victory on Saturday.
Last Week's Rankings in Parentheses
1, Montee Ball, RB (2) - Ball's memory from the first game against Nebraska is the fumble on the last offensive play, which allowed Nebraska to seal the win. Ball would like nothing more then to erase that image with a win. Able to get off to such a quick start against Nebraska and score three touchdowns, Ball was slowed in the second half when the Cornhuskers starting loading the box. Wisconsin can't let that happen again because Ball is one of the Badgers' biggest offensive threats; a point emphasized last week against Penn State that the offense slowed when he was contained. If Ball can play to his capabilities, it will only mean good things for the offense. Running the football much better since the conference opener and running with a purpose, Ball should continue to run with the same kind of mindset and it will be important that he does so he can leave an imprint on the game.
2, Curt Phillips, QB (1) - Phillips has improved each week since he has been named the starter and has led Wisconsin to the game-tying score in the game's waning seconds two weeks in a tow. Even though he has helped the Badgers get to overtime, Phillips hasn't necessarily put together a complete game, but it seems like that he's close to doing so. Although Ball has to get his touches, it's also important that the UW coaching staff lets Phillips throw the football to keep Nebraska's defense honest. With the Cornhuskers' defense being so tough and physical, it will be important that Phillips doesn't take any sacks so Wisconsin doesn't play behind the chains.
3, David Gilbert, DE (5) - Gilbert would probably like to forget his comment about Taylor Martinez ability to throw the football. Gilbert will get a second chance to redeem himself from those comments Saturday. Gilbert played fine the first game recording three tackles, forcing a fumble and a sack, but Gilbert needs to improve those numbers and continue to get after and pressure Martinez. Gilbert and the defensive line did an excellent job of containing Braxton Miller and they are going to have to have a repeat performance with Martinez. If they let Martinez extend plays, it will be a long game for the defense.
4, Ricky Wagner, LT (4) - Earning consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors, Wagner is going to be very important because if he can't effectively pass and run block, it will be a struggle for the offense. The Badgers could end up running toward the left side the majority of the game and if Wagner can't create holes, Wisconsin will become the dangerous one-dimensional offense. Wagner and his linemates can't allow Phillips and be put in positions the offense can't afford, especially since UW has struggled moving the football consistently.
5, Chris Borland, MLB (3) -Having missed the past two games due to a hamstring injury, Borland is expected to play and will be needed Saturday. Borland is probably the Badgers' best defensive player and always seems to generate turnovers when he plays. Wisconsin needs to win the turnover battle to have a good shot at beating Nebraska.
6, Jacob Pedersen, TE (NR) - Who will step up and help the passing game? Even though he was named the conference's tight end of the year, Pedersen has been streaky throughout the year and has to find ways to get open and help make holes for the tailbacks. Pedersen needs to put a complete game together and I would think Phillips would try and get Pedersen involved early in the game to show the Cornhuskers' defense they can't only defend Jared Abbrederis.
7, Devin Smith, CB (6) - Once again, Smith will have another tough assignment covering Kenny Bell, who has 44 receptions for 789 yards and eight touchdowns on the season. Smith did a good job of covering Allen Robinson last week and holding him to only four catches for 35 yards. With Martinez having the ability to extend plays, Smith and the UW cornerbacks will have to be able to cover longer then he normally would and limit big things down the field.
Others to Note
Defensive Tackle Beau Allen: Allen will have to be able to plug the middle to allow the linebackers the freedom to make plays and slow down the Cornhuskers' run game, which torches the Badgers in the first meeting. Even if the Badgers can slow down Martinez, Nebraska still have two capable tailbacks that can break off long runs. If Allen can do his job, he'll be able to help make the linebacker's job easier.
Wide Receiver Jared Abbrederis: Abbrederis will find a way to make some sort of impact because he's a playmaker and playmakers find ways to make plays in big games. The Badgers have tried Abbrederis on reverses in past weeks and I expect that to continue. The Badgers will try and get him involved in some way on offense to see if he can make an impact.
Linebacker Mike Taylor: It will be important that Taylor keeps containment and doesn't let Martinez get behind him. Taylor will have to be able to make some plays in pass coverage and at the line of scrimmage. He can't let Martinez, Rex Burkhead or Ameer Abdullah get into the secondary. If Taylor can help limit big plays by the Cornhuskers' offense, it may take some momentum away from Nebraska.
Running Back Melvin Gordon: Gordon was able to score on a 57-yard pass play to put the Badgers up an early touchdown, but vanished the rest of the game after that play. I honestly don't know why offensive coordinator Matt Canada didn't try and go back to Gordon and it was a mistake in retrospect. Gordon might have been able to get to the edge and opened other things up on offense against Penn State. The Badgers' coaching staff should try and use Gordon's speed and elusiveness to see if he can help open up the offense.