With Russell Wilson throwing for two touchdowns and running for another, No.7 Wisconsin routed No.8 Nebraska, 48-17, in front of a national television audience, cementing the Badgers as a contender for the conference championship. Montee Ball ran for 151 yards and four scores and Wisconsin's defense picked off Taylor Martinez three times, as Wisconsin outscored Nebraska, 35-3, over the final 42 minutes.
That was last year. Through four nonconference games this year, Nebraska is averaging 48.5 points per game, sixth best in the country, while Wisconsin has yet to put together a complete offensive performance.
What does Nebraska hold in store for the Badgers this season when Wisconsin travels out to Lincoln for the first time since 1973? To find out more, Badger Nation reached out to Big Red Report Publisher Josh Harvey to get some insight on the Cornhuskers.
What kind of gauge do you think people have on Nebraska considering its three blowout wins have come against lesser competition?
Harvey: There isn't a really good gauge at this point and that's why everyone is so excited for this game. The Nebraska offense is as good as expected, but the biggest question marks still come on defense.
How has Taylor Martinez progressed as a quarterback? Through four games, what do you think his biggest strengths and weaknesses are?
Harvey: I would definitely say Martinez has progressed as a quarterback, but it shouldn't be any surprise after how hard he worked this offseason. Martinez worked out with West Coast quarterback coach Steve Calhoun in the summer and saw his extra work become a huge storyline entering the season. The junior's mechanics and footwork are different and his passing completion rate is nearly 14 points higher than a year ago. I don't mean this in a negative way, but when he throws the football now, he looks like a quarterback. It has also made him a more dangerous runner, something we already knew he could be. When teams are genuinely concerned about him hitting open receivers, it leaves huge lanes for him to find a spot and run with it.
How important is Rex Burkhead to the overall success of the offense? Have the Cornhuskers started developing other playmakers around him?
Harvey: If you would have asked this question a month ago, my answer would have been probably drastically different. The senior got hurt in the Huskers' opening game of the year and was forced to sit out two-weeks with a MCL sprain. It really gave the coaching staff a chance to see what was behind him and the answer is Ameer Abdullah. The sophomore averaged 122 yards in the first three games and had limited touches last week in a blowout win (eight carries for 49 yards). Coming into the year, it was the hope Abdullah could provide some relief for Burkhead. Now people are actually calling for a 50-50 split or close to it. Burkhead will be a crucial piece going forward, but his stock isn't quite as high as it was a month ago. As for other player-makers, sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell is averaging 24.4 yards per catch this season and has four touchdowns. He might not be Taylor Martinez's favorite target, but he's the most dangerous one with his speed.
What did UCLA expose in Nebraska only loss thus far? How surprising was the setback and have the Cornhuskers taken steps to fix those issues?
Harvey: It was surprising because Nebraska really struggled in all three aspects of the game, but yet was in it, on the road, until the very end. On offense, UCLA spread them out and used their speed to expose Nebraska – especially the Huskers linebackers. Since then, there has been some personnel changes, which has allowed Nebraska to get faster at the position. On defense, the Bruins forced Nebraska into passing situations in the second half and brought the house – similar to what Wisconsin did to rattle Martinez last year. When the junior quarterback is working a balanced offense, he can be pretty special. When he's forced to throw time-after-time, it's where he can struggle.
What has been the big change/focus around the program, the coaching staff and players after struggling last season in its first year in the Big Ten?
Harvey: I think the biggest focus has been on the defensive side of the football. Last year was the offenses' first year in the Tim Beck system and the general consensus was it would take a little time to adjust. Coming into this season, there weren't many doubts that Nebraska could move the football. But on defense, too many times last year it seemed to be 10 guys watching Lavonte David make big plays. This year I see a defense that swarms to the football – even if they have tackling trouble from time to time. I have also seen it be more aggressive – mirroring the look fans saw in 2009 and 2010 when the defense was one of the best in the nation. I think it has a long way to go and is missing star power, but I think overall the defense will be better in year two of the Big Ten.
How much, if any, have Nebraska players talked about last season's blowout loss in Madison?
Harvey: To this point, not really at all. I think the topic would have come up more, but they also had a blowout loss to Michigan on the road and a horrible second half against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. A bad half was a common trend for Nebraska in most of their big games last year. Even Ohio State at home, which turned out to be the biggest comeback in school history, saw a horrible first half. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and crew do a really good job making the team focus on the task at hand. It's coach speak at most programs, but I really do feel like it's the way at Nebraska.
Where do you see Wisconsin having an edge over Nebraska in this match-up and where do you think Nebraska will give Wisconsin trouble?
Harvey: I think it's too tough to call. The times I have seen Wisconsin play they were struggling. But at the same token, the times Nebraska looked good was against inferior opponents. If anything stands out to me, I do think this will be by far the toughest offense Wisconsin has faced to this point. They are averaging 48.5 points a game at this point and it's not just because of lesser opponents. This offense was expected to be good and has looked better than advertised at times.
After seeing what Camp Randall is like in primetime, compare what the environment in Lincoln is at night in terms of atmosphere and toughness on opposing teams?
Harvey: Memorial Stadium can get pretty loud, but I wouldn't classify it one of the loudest stops in the Big Ten. Even if it's a close game, I wouldn't anticipate the fans making Wisconsin have to adjust too much. The Nebraska fan base is one of the best in the country and a game-day at Memorial Stadium is something a college football fan will always remember, but the crowds at Nebraska game tend to be a little older. When you have fans screaming for people to sit down during play, you can imagine the environment isn't that of a Penn State, Wisconsin, Ohio State or Iowa. That being said, Wisconsin fans who make the trip are in store for the most genuine respectable fans in the country. They treat their visitors right.
What is the key to this game for the Cornhuskers and do you have a prediction?
Harvey: I think the Nebraska offense has to be balanced, if anything run heavy. It will help Martinez when he does go to throw. On defense, Pelini has to get back to what he does best as a defensive-minded guy – confuse quarterbacks. Joel Stave looked very calm against UTEP – I would expect the Nebraska defense to be a little more complex than the Miners. I got destroyed last year by Badgers fans when I predicted a Nebraska victory, but I'm going to have to do it again. This is a different Wisconsin team this year.
Nebraska – 38 Wisconsin – 30
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