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MADISON - It's no wonder why Bret Bielema and Bo Pelini are friends away from the football field. Both run hard-working, blue-collar programs with deep Midwest roots. Each school has a history of success — Nebraska with five national championships and Wisconsin with five Rose Bowl appearances in the past 20 years — and an athletic department led by a Hall of Fame former coach who lifted his football program to greater heights.
The philosophies are the same, too, so it's not a surprise that neither coach is putting much stock into Wisconsin's 31-point blowout over Nebraska last season at Camp Randall in the team's first meeting since 1973.
"I don't take much out of it," Pelini said in preparation for No.22 Nebraska hosting Wisconsin 7 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. "We got beat up there. We didn't play well. The better team won that night. Different time, different place, different football team. I don't really care what happened last year. That's in the past. It's time to move on."
Senior linebacker Will Compton said at Big Ten Media Days that the focal point throughout summer was Southern Mississippi (a game Nebraska won 49-20), but he didn't hide the fact that the returning players had their eyes focused on proving themselves again in conference play.
"I am very excited to play (Wisconsin) and do some things different than we did last year," said Compton.
The Cornhuskers were expected to compete for the Legends Division title last season in their first season in the conference, but went 5-3 and lost two games by at least 28 points. Nebraska gave up 23.4 points per game and frustration was the optimal word for Compton representing the Cornhuskers' defense at points last season, especially against Wisconsin.
After taking a 14-7 lead with 12:45 remaining in the first half, Nebraska allowed the Badgers to register five explosive plays of 20-yards or more, including two that went for touchdowns in the final five minutes, that resulted in a 27-14 UW halftime lead.
The main catalyst was Russell Wilson, who completed 12 of 16 passes (75 percent) for 233 yards and two touchdowns - in the first half. According to Compton, that caused a different vibe on the visitor's sideline that resulted in players yelling at one another instead of trying to correct the problems.
"We lost our composure," said Compton, who said the resolve was gone by the time Wisconsin scored on a 14-play, 81-yard drive and a 13-play, 73-yard drive to finish the route. "We lost our focus. We were trying to get it back, but not in the right way. We let the snowball effect get us. We bought into being down and we let ourselves get down on us. They got our number."
Wisconsin also got the number of quarterback Taylor Martinez, frustrating him throughout the night to the tune of three interception and three sacks.
"They are a very physical team from the defensive line to the linebackers to the secondary," said senior tailback Rex Burkhead, who returned Saturday after missing the previous two games with a knee injury. "They fly around and make plays."
Like last year, Nebraska (3-1) enters the conference season with more questions than answers after losing a shootout to UCLA at the Rose Bowl and blowing out its three other nonconference opponents, including a 73-7 whipping over Idaho State last week.
In that game, Nebraska scored 45 points in the first half, more points than they scored in all but one game last season. Nebraska rushed for 385 of its 569 total yards in the game, improving its Big Ten-best rushing totals to 317.5 yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry.
"I said to the team last night, 'We'll find out how mature we are as a football team,' " Pelini said Saturday. "How were they going to approach the game? Were we going to go out there and do what we're capable of doing, regardless of who the opponent was? I thought we did that early on. 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."
Nebraska figured to be in transition after losing its top three defensive players - defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard – to the NFL, but the Cornhuskers are putting up numbers that suggest their getting close. Nebraska is fifth in the country in sacks per game (4.0) and 13th in tackles for loss (8.3).
From Compton's perspective, their shoes have been filled by the team as a whole; a group that is yearning to get back to, as Compton likes to put it, "Blackshirt Style" defense.
"We're more than hungry," said Compton. "We want to be the best defense on the field every game. we want to be the defense in the country. That's not us wanting to match up. That's a self-imposed dream of us. We want to be known as a very dangerous group on the field.
"We want it that bad. Our seniors and our leadership, the players that have been doing it all offseason, there's just a different mentality about all of it. We really want to put a great product on the field."