Breakdown & Prediction - No.11 Nebraska

BadgerNation breaks down Wisconsin's matchup with No.11 Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday afternoon, specifically the battle in the trenches between the Huskers' defensive line and Badgers' offensive line, and offer our prediction.

No.11 Nebraska (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) vs. No.22 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, November 15 at 2:30 p.m. CT

Stadium –Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)

Television –ABC (Sean McDonough, Chris Spielman, Todd McShay)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas, Mark Tauscher)

National Radio - Compass Media (Gregg Daniels and Dan Hellestrae)

Series –Series tied 4-4 (Wisconsin leads 2-1 in Madison)

Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 70-31, on December 1, 2012 in Indianapolis

Series Notes

The teams have split their two conference games with the home team winning each time, but the Badgers have won two of the three meetings since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, including Wisconsin’s victory in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game.

Both teams enter the matchup ranked for just the second time in nine all-time meetings. The only previous meeting of ranked teams was in 2011, when No. 7 Wisconsin beat No. 8 Nebraska, 48-17, in Madison. The Badgers lead the series 2-1 at Camp Randall Stadium, with Nebraska’s lone win coming in 1966.

Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in rushing, with Nebraska impressive in its own right. The Huskers average 280.7 rushing yards per game to rank second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally. The Huskers have rushed for better than 300 yards three times this season, including two games of more than 400 yards.

Wisconsin Notes

Wisconsin boasts the nation’s top defense, allowing just 251.1 yards per game. The Badgers also rank No. 3 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 14.3 points per contest. Wisconsin also ranks No. 3 nationally in passing defense, at 156.8 yards allowed per game, and No. 5 in rushing defense, at 94.3 yards per contest. UW has surrendered an average of just 181.3 yards and 7.7 points over their last three games.

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Wisconsin’s defense has limited 72.9 percent of opponents’ drives to six plays or fewer, the best such mark in the FBS. Ole Miss (72.7 percent) is the only other team holding at least 70 percent of opponent possessions to six plays or fewer.

Since the start of the 2006 season, the Badgers are 25-6 (.806) in the month of November, including a 12-2 mark at home. Wisconsin is also 4-1 against ranked teams at home since 2010.

The Badgers’ defense has dialed up the pressure in 2014 and is on pace to increase its tackles for loss and sacks over last season. Through nine games, UW has 63 tackles for loss (64 in 13 games in 2013) and 28 sacks (26).

The Badgers have outscored their opponents by a total score of 104-30 in the third quarter, an average of 12.2 points per game. Only Louisiana Tech (+90), TCU (+85) and Marshall (+80) have larger scoring margins in the third quarter this season. In nine games this season, Wisconsin’s defense has surrendered just eight touchdowns in the second half.

Nebraska Notes

The 490.6 yards of total offense through nine games is the Huskers’ best offensive start to a season since averaging 510.2 yards through nine games in 1997.

Entering the home stretch of the season, Abdullah ranks among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards (1,250), all-purpose yards (1,691) and points scored (114). Abdullah has topped 1,000 yards rushing for the third straight season, becoming the first player in Huskers history with three 1,000-yard seasons

Bell has led Nebraska in receptions for each of the past three seasons, becoming the first player to do so since Matt Davison from 1998 to 2000. In 2014, Bell could become the first player in school history to lead the team in receptions for four straight seasons. Already the school’s all-time reception leader, Bell is two yards from breaking the school’s all-time receiving yards record.

Quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s average of 266.4 total offensive yards per game ranks second in the Big Ten. Armstrong has recorded 2,398 yards of total offense through nine games, which already ranks No. 9 on the NU single-season list. Armstrong is on pace to set a single-season total offense record by a sophomore and could also post just the fourth 3,000-yard total offense season in school history.

Through nine games, the 2014 Blackshirts have shown the same knack for making life difficult for opposing passers. Opposing quarterbacks have completed only 157-of-335 passes, for a 46.9 percent completion rate, the third-best mark in the nation.

Breakdown

Whenever he pops in tape to start studying an opponent, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen’s eyes always seem to dart right toward the defensive line. It’s habit, he says, from a defensive coaching background that started in 1992.

So focusing first on the Cornhuskers’ defensive line, Andersen gleaned that the Huskers have a physical, tough, stout defensive line that was headlined by Randy Gregory, who shifts around on the defensive line and seems to cause havoc wherever he goes.

“He's stout and solid and physical against the run, very, very talented pass rusher, a change of direction guy,” said Andersen. “People have tried to do some different things to him in the read-zone concepts and he's shown, for a big guy, he can definitely not have much worry about doing whatever he needs to do to get involved.”

Gregory is not the sole reason, but he is one of the main reason’s Nebraska’s defense has been good throughout the 2014 season. The Cornhuskers rank 16th nationally in scoring defense (19.7 points per game) and 25th nationally in total defense (339.8).

An All-Big Ten selection a year ago, Gregory leads the team in sacks (5.5) and quarterback hurries (14) and is second in tackles for loss (seven). The last two numbers are a reason why Nebraska has held its opponents to 26.6 percent (37 of 139) on third downs and not allowed any Big Ten teams to convert more than 33.3 percent of its third-down chances.

“He’s a special player,” offensive line coach T.J. Woods said of the 6-6, 245-pound end. “I don’t know how else to say it. What he does on the football field is exciting, explosiveness and sudden.”

The hard part about Gregory is putting two players on him results in one of Nebraska’s other talented linemen making a play.

Sophomore defensive end Greg McMullen (6-3, 280) works opposite Gregory and has 2.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries and four passes broken up. Sophomore tackle Maliek Collins (6-2, 300-pound) puts up tremendous numbers for a defensive tackle: two sacks, tied for the team lead with nine tackles for loss and 12 quarterback hurries.

“They're talented. Very, very good pass rushers on the edges,” said Andersen. “That's the strength of their defense, which is a very good defense throughout, but a strength of their defense if you throw on the tape - and maybe my eyes always get drawn there because of my background coaching the defensive front -- but there's a bunch of guys on that defense that a lot of defensive coaches in the country would like to coach, let me put it that way. They're good players.”

When he started recruiting Collins out of Kansas City Center HS in 2003, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini was reminded of former LSU star Glenn Dorsey, the No.5 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft who Pelini coached when he was the Tigers’ defensive coordinator from 2005-07.

Not only did Collins, one of the top 25 defensive tackles in his recruiting, have a handful of power six scholarship offers, he was a standout wrestler, going 96-5 his first two high school years and won the Missouri Class 2A state championship as a senior.

“You've got to be a little screwed up to be a wrestler,” said Pelini. “You’ve got to have some explosion, feet. You have to be a pretty good athlete to do the things you have to do and wrestle at a high level. I thought that Maliek certainly did. Obviously the competitive nature he brings to the table. Just the total package. He’s a pretty talented guy.”

The line has been a work in progress for Pelini. Nebraska has limited six opponents to under 125 rushing yards, including holding Miami and Illinois under 80 in back-to-back weeks. The Cornhuskers also let FCS McNeese State run for 178 in a near upset bid and Michigan State run for 188 in Nebraska’s lone loss this season.

Not only does Wisconsin rank fourth nationally in rushing yards per game (325.7) and have the nation’s leading rusher – Melvin Gordon at 166.8 – in its backfield, Wisconsin has only allowed seven sacks in nine games (0.78 per game), the sixth best mark in the country.

“I think they’ve gotten better,” Pelini said of the line. “I think they’re playing pretty well. I think there’s still a lot more there for them. It’s still really a pretty young group … I’m seeing them develop. I think they’re playing well. I see them getting better and more consistent in a lot of things, but still see a lot of areas where they can get better.”

“We’ve got a tremendous challenge on our hands with both Gregory and Collins inside,” added Woods. “I think both those guys are as good as we’ve faced all year, but we’re excited about it.”

Prediction

This could one of the greatest litmus tests of the college football season, as I doubt two teams with so many question marks have played this season with so much on the line. Nebraska is fighting for a chance to redeem itself from the 2012 Big Ten Championship game blowout, win the league and sneak into the playoff discussion, but the Cornhuskers lost their only game against a ranked opponent this season and are 1-4 in their last five games against ranked teams.

Wisconsin has stumbled in both of its big tests this year and also doesn’t have a marquee win to hang its hat on. The Badgers, like the Cornhuskers, are 0-1 against top 25 times, blowing a 17-point lead in the season opener against LSU.

Both quarterbacks have a lot to prove, too. Tommy Armstrong is coming off an awful-looking performance in a home win over Purdue in which there were a half dozen botched center-quarterback exchanges, completed only 8 of 21 passes and threw two picks. He's completing only 53 percent of his throws with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. When he faced Michigan State, he committed three turnovers and was sacked five times. However, Armstrong has a running ability to his game that has to be respected. He’s probably the best QB Wisconsin has seen this year.

Wisconsin has been trading off between quarterbacks for the last four weeks and has seen the system between Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy improve since the bye week. Of course, UW played bad defenses in each of those weeks, so the results are skewed. Can UW stack up against Nebraska’s defense?

Vegas stays they can, making the Badgers a four-point favorite at the beginning of the week. I’m less certain. I think this game is a coin flip between two evenly matched good teams, but I think UW’s quarterback play will be a downfall Saturday.

Nebraska 31, Wisconsin 28

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 8-1

Against the Spread: 5-3

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