Outside of the season opener against LSU, the November 15th game against Nebraska was certain to be circled on the schedule as an important date for Wisconsin football. In the first meeting between the two since the 2012, Wisconsin and Nebraska meet with control of the Big Ten West Division at stake.
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, Wisconsin is 2-1 against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska (8-1, 4-1) is coming off its bye week and are currently riding a three game win streak in which they have scored at least 35 points per game.
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 play an important role in helping the Badgers win the inaugural Freedom Trophy against Nebraska as they continue to play for a spot in the Big Ten Championship game in December.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): Gordon continues to impress, rushing for over 200 yards for the third time this season and the fourth in his career. Despite all the success Gordon has had this year running the football, his biggest test will come against a Nebraska defense fifth in rush defense in the Big Ten, only allowing 123.8 yards a game. Although Nebraska has shown that they can slow down the run, Gordon should have success if offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig can successfully get him into open space. Gordon first career 200-yard rushing game came, ironically, against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten title game. Gordon, who is averaging 166.8 rushing yards per game, should be able to find seams against Nebraska considering he has been so good in creating runs out of nothing this year, displaying the instincts of being able to reverse field and turn what looks like a negative rush into something positive.
Maybe one of the more important things to come out of the Badgers win over Purdue last week is that Ludwig was able to get Gordon involved in the pass game, which allows Gordon another opportunity of getting in space. If Gordon can once again can do that again, it will take some players out of the box by forcing Nebraska to respect Gordon as a receiver out of the backfield.
2, Joel Stave QB (4): Wisconsin fans got a glimpse of what Stave could do in the second quarter against Purdue - going 12-13 for 143 yards. But as good as Stave was in the second quarter, he battled with inconsistency in the second half, finishing 7-for-16 the rest of the game. Stave needs to be able to keep drives alive and go through his reads so he can make safe throws. Nebraska has given up an average of 216 yards through the air this season, but only gives up 5.8 yards a pass (second best in the league). If any of Wisconsin’s receivers or tight ends can get behind the Cornhuskers secondary, Stave has to be able to make the throw and place the football on his intended target with good accuracy.
Stave was able to convert two critical third downs against Purdue and will need to continue that success against a Nebraska defense that ranks first in the Big Ten in opponent third down conversion (26.6 percent). If Wisconsin can consistently set up favorable situations for them on third down, which will begin with Stave’s decision making, they could have success moving the chains and keep Nebraska’s offense off the field.
3, Vince Biegel OLB (NR): Biegel continues to rack up the stats and has becoming one of the most consistent pass rushers on Wisconsin over the last three weeks. Biegel consistently made his presence felt last week, registering seven tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and one pass break up to earn Big Ten defensive player of the week. Biegel will have to be ready to slow down the explosive Ameer Abdullah, who leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards with 1,691 yards (187.9 a game). Although Abdullah may still be recovering from the sprained MCL he suffered two weeks ago against Purdue, he still is a threat, especially out of the backfield, ranking third for Nebraska in both receptions (13) and receiving yards (169). Biegel will have to be aware of where he is lined up on the football field.
Abdullah ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 138.9 yards, but was slowed by Michigan State stout run defense (45 yards). With the Badgers being so strong against the run (94.3 yards allowed a game) they could have the same success as Michigan State and that starts with Biegel’s effectiveness in getting into the backfield.
4, Darius Hillary CB (7): Hillary continues to play well and recorded five tackles and a pass breakup in the win over Purdue. Hillary will have a difficult challenge against Nebraska when he lines up against either Jordan Westerkamp or Kenny Bell. Both players are talented threats in the passing game, as both rank in the top ten in receiving yards per game in the Big Ten. Westerkamp leads Nebraska in receiving yards (600 yards) and touchdowns (four) and Bell leads the team in receptions with 34. Hillary will likely line up against both receivers and can’t afford any mental breakdowns considering how good both enough are to take advantage of mistakes.
One other area to consider is Nebraska has only given up nine sacks on the year. If Nebraska continues to be strong in protecting Tommy Armstrong in the pocket, Hillary will have to be ready to be in pass coverage longer then he has over the last couple of weeks.
5, Rob Havenstein RT (NR): Havenstein will have a tough test when he goes up against the talented defensive end Randy Gregory. Gregory leads Nebraska with 5.5 sacks and has used his athleticism to get the better of many linemen in the trenches. Gregory has the talent to cause havoc and cause disruption in either the run or the pass game. The Badgers may not necessarily run the football toward Gregory side often to try and prevent him from making a play. If and when they do run toward Havenstein side, he’s going to have to make sure he sustains his blocks, prevent penetration into the backfield and crate a gap to give Gordon or Corey Clement a chance to get to the second level. If Havenstein can consistently win his battle and isolate Gregory then Wisconsin should have success rushing the football and helping protect Stave.
6, Michael Caputo S (3): After tying Biegel for the team lead with seven tackles, Caputo will need to be ready to be lined up all over the field. The junior will be counted on to help slow the passing game by making sure he is a safety blanket in helping either Hillary or Sojourn Shelton in coverage and be responsible for corralling Nebraska’s running game. Caputo is one of Wisconsin’s steadier defenders and has had success making sure players don’t pick up any extra yards once he gets his hands on him. Wth Nebraska being one of the top offenses in the Big Ten (40.4 points and 490.6 yards per game) having Caputo do a little bit of everything on defense could help slow down the offense.
7, Derek Landisch MLB (2): Landisch played well but didn’t have the speed to cover Akeem Hunt on what turned out to be a 79-yard touchdown off the wheel route. The senior doesn’t have the speed to match up with Hunt and it would be surprising if Nebraska didn’t try and run something similar to get the same kind of matchup in open space. However, mastermind defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has already probably designed a coverage to minimize the effect of Nebraska’s speed on the edge. Landisch, who is second on the team in sacks (six), will also be counted on to try and supply the pressure on Armstrong, who has thrown an interception in the last five of six games, including a pair of picks twice.
Others to Note
Alex Erickson, WR: Wisconsin need Erickson in order to have another successful passing game. Stave and Erickson have developed a good chemistry with one another, evident by the perfectly placed throw and well-timed leap on their touchdown connection last Saturday. If Nebraska can get after Stave and force a quick throw, Erickson will likely be his intended target. Regardless of when Stave throws the football deep, Erickson has shown that he can catch the contested football.
Rafael Gaglianone, K: Gaglianone has been called upon to make sure Wisconsin gets some points out of stalled drives. Gaglianone has been able to convert on his last six field goal attempts. With Nebraska having a strong defense, the Badgers need to be able to convert on their opportunities and get points when they are available. It’ll be interesting to see if Gary Andersen goes to Gaglianone on fourth-and-short situations or if he tries to extend the drive, something that backfired in him against Purdue.
Tanner McEvoy, QB: Ludwig added a new wrinkle to his two quarterback system by interchanging Stave and McEvoy within a series and you could tell it threw Purdue’s defense off. The switching also allowed McEvoy to play to his strengths more of running the football instead of passing. It should be expected that Ludwig will continue to do this going forward, depending on the situation. The new wrinkle could result in McEvoy seeing more time around the goal line if Wisconsin is struggling to punch the football in. It would also mean not having to ask McEvoy to try and complete long passes around the goal line.
Sojourn Shelton, CB: Hillary’s solid year in pass coverage has masked Shelton inconsistent play. Shelton has the ability to help contain the other side of the field but at times he has been beaten off of the line of scrimmage, causing a long completion or him being called for pass interference. The Badgers have been one of the least penalized teams with only 39 penalties accepted against them. Shelton will have to play smart and make sure he doesn’t draw a costly penalty that will help Nebraska continue to move the chains.