First let's review BadgerNation's performance in identifying the keys to the UTEP game. We picked a healthy Jared Abbrederis, Joel Stave's nerves, Miner Nathan Jeffery's health, and UW special teams play. Those look solid. Abbrederis is clearly the Badger difference maker on offense, Jeffery's tender effort limited UTEP to a passing game, Stave did settle in and a deficient Badgers kicking game kept it much closer than it should have been.
Nebraska comes into the game a fairly unimpressive 3-1. The three wins came against teams whose combined record in 2-6. The loss, similar to the Badgers loss, came in the second week against a PAC-12 opponent on the coast. The Cornhuskers managed only two fields goals in the second half of the loss to UCLA.
1, The Health of Badger DEs VS Taylor Martinez
Much has been made of Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez' new throwing motion. It could hardly be anything but an improvement over his 2011 technique. Martinez was 11 for 22 with 3 INTs in a 48-17 rout of the Huskers by Wisconsin to open the 2011 Big Ten season. But his marks against UCLA in 2012 were only a slight improvement. He was 17 of 31 for 179 yards (a mediocre 5.8 per attempt) no touchdowns and 1 interception. If the Badgers are healthy at DE, and it appears as of Thursday night the David Gilbert will be healthy, but that Brendan Kelly will not be, then there is a chance UW can pressure Martinez into making the same mistakes as in 2011. Gilbert will not get the start, as he is being disciplined for noting, while chatting to the press about his Nebraska opponent, what is obvious: Martinez' improvement is one of the keys to the game. But it is best left to BadgerNation, not Badger players, to report the keys to the game.
2, UW Linebackers Making Big Plays
Mike Taylor intercepted one of those passes in 2011. And the trio of Badger linebackers has been the core of a solid defensive effort in 2012. This point is fairly straight forward. Taylor and fellow linebackers Ethan Armstrong and Chris Borland will need to force two turnovers and make solid tackles on Nebraska's Martinez, tailback Rex Burkhead, and tailback Ameer Abdullah. This will be Burkhead's first major test since a knee injury early in the season. His production will be a critical factor.
3, Stave Improving
UW wide receiver Jared Abbrederis won't be wide open in Saturday's tilt with Nebraska as he was several times against UTEP in Badger QB Joel Stave's first career start. Stave will have to show some improvement in timing patterns against Nebraska. And he has no margin for error in terms of interceptions. Against UTEP he threw one very bad pass that was picked off, another that should have been and a third pass, an underthrown deep ball, that better defenders might have intercepted. UW doesn't need a prolific night from Stave, just a consistent one.
4,Montee Ball's Health
UW star tailback Montee Ball left last week's game against UTEP with a concussion but has been cleared to play against Nebraska. UW will need him. Tailback Melvin Gordon filled in admirably for Ball, showing blazing speed to the outside. But the Badgers didn't attempt to run Gordon on inside handoffs. Nebraska won't allow Gordon to get to the edge as easily, making Ball the choice for inside rushing yards.
5, Weathering the Storm
As UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez frequently points out, road night games are tremendous psychological challenges for college football teams. After the raucous atmosphere that greeted Nebraska at Camp Randall for a night game to open the 2011 Big Ten season it is to be expected that the Husker crowd will come prepared to make noise. A few early defensive stands by the Badgers will do much to make it competitive game.
UW's defensive ends are challenged to get to Nebraska's Martinez. Subbing in for Kelly (and possibly Gilbert) Tyler Dippel, Konrad Zagzebski and Jesse Hayes won't provide enough pressure. Consequently UW's linebackers will find it difficult to play for the run. Nebraska will provide Martinez plenty of time for play action to develop. Martinez, while not pretty in his throwing motion, will hit passes early, including one big gainer. UW will move the ball on the ground, as the offensive line and Montee Ball continue to show improvement, but the drives stall on third down as Stave's first big game, in a very challenging environment, proves too tall an order. Nebraska forces field goal attempts in the redzone, winning in fairly convincing fashion, 27-13.