Faced in a 0-1 hole in the Big Ten for a second straight year, Wisconsin is hoping to rekindle the magic that had them win seven straight games and clinch the Big Ten West title. Unlike last year, however, there seems to be more questions than answers, especially surrounding Wisconsin’s offense.
Wisconsin’s inability to develop consistent rhythm and convert on third downs has become troublesome. The Badgers will have a chance against Nebraska as the Cornhuskers rank 11th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and 12th in total defense.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week and need. Here are our seven players most important in helping the Badgers to a win over Nebraska, as Wisconsin owns a 14-9 record on the road over the last five seasons.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Joe Schobert OLB (1): Schobert continues to be a terror for Wisconsin and single handedly helped keep Wisconsin in the game against Iowa. Named co-defensive Big Ten player of the week after registering 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, forcing two fumbles and recovering one, the tear Schobert has been on this season will need to continue, especially with the struggles on offense. Nebraska’s offensive line has been solid throughout the season (only allowing seven sacks) but the Cornhuskers haven’t likely seen someone as talented as Schobert this season. Like Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard, Schobert will have a similar test with Huskers QB Tommy Armstrong’s ability to run the football. Armstrong is second on the team in rushing yards (156) but may not have many chances to escape the pocket with the way Schobert has been playing. Schobert’s ability to consistently get after the quarterback should prevent Armstrong from getting into a rhythm, as he’s only completing 54.4 percent of his passes. If Schobert can consistently get after Armstrong, it could lead to mistakes by a quarterback who has already thrown six interceptions this season.
2, Tyler Marz LT (4): Marz struggled mightily against Iowa, highlighted by getting beat off the edge by Drew Ott that resulted in a critical forced fumble. The struggles by a fifth-year senior are surprising and the tests don’t get easier this week against Nebraska’s experience front. Marz individually will have a test against redshirt freshman Freedom Akinmoladun, who leads the Huskers with 4.5 sacks. Marz has the edge in experience but at times has not done well of engaging and winning his battle in the trenches. Wisconsin needs to strike an offensive balance, and Marz will be counted on to provide opportunities to move the chains. Nebraska is only allowing 85 yards a game, so Wisconsin’s success running the football begin with Marz consistently getting the better push.
3, Joel Stave QB (2): Stave repeatedly missed his intended target against Iowa and was responsible for four turnovers last weekend. Although Nebraska has done well getting after the quarterback, the secondary has struggled to defend the pass, giving up a nation’s worst 353.8 yards through the air. Through five games Stave is averaging 212.8 yards and needs to do a better job of reading each play and delivering crisp passes. Nebraska has only three interceptions on the season but will gladly take some of the easy pickings Stave offered up to cornerback Desmond King last week. UW needs Stave to bounce back and learn from his mistakes in order to kick the offense into high gear.
4, Michael Caputo S (3): Caputo was a big part in limiting Iowa’s passing game to 77 yards, impressive considered Beathard entered the game averaging 240.5 yards a contest, and registered his second career interception. The task is just as challenging this week with Armstrong averaging a conference-best 274.2 passing yards. As good as Wisconsin’s pass defense has been, only allowing 183 yards a contest, they will have difficulty slowing down Armstrong’s weapons, as Nebraska has two players with over 350 yards receiving this season. Caputo will serve as a good security blanket to clean up mistakes in the passing game and help slow a Huskers running game that averages 5.4 yards per carry. Caputo, like Schobert, should be able to find himself all over the field as he tries to help keep Nebraska’s offense – averaging 31.6 points a game 0 - in check.
5, Taiwan Deal RB (5): It was tough sledding for Deal, who was unable to build on his 147-yard performance against Hawaii. Iowa’s strong defensive front is a good precursor for going against a Huskers defense allowing 3.1 yards per rush. To be fair, Nebraska hasn’t faced a run offense better than 60th in the country. To be fair, the Badgers aren’t great either, ranking 74th in the NCAA at 167.8 yards. Deal’s physical running style should fit what kind of game it will be, but in order for Deal to have success, he’ll need the offensive line to get a better push an open up some alleys.
6, Rob Wheelwright WR (NR): Alex Erickson’s status is in the air as he recovers from a concussion and tight end Austin Traylor is out. Not there wasn’t before, but there’s even more pressure for Wheelwright to step up into a consistent role in the passing game. Wheelwright finished with four catches for 33 yards against Iowa but dropped three passes and at times caught the football with his body. Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks - Daniel Davie and Jonathan Rose - are both listed at 6-1 so Wheelwright won’t have the height advantage. Instead he will need to be physical to gain the separation and give Stave a big enough of a target so he can make the catch and stretch the field. Wheelwright’s biggest attribute so far is his ability in the red zone. His three receiving touchdowns are tied for the team lead, and Nebraska has given up nine passing touchdowns on the season.
7, Darius Hillary CB (NR): Hillary will have plenty of chances to make a play considering Armstrong averages 36.4 passes a game. Hillary leads Wisconsin’s cornerbacks in tackles (20), pass deflections (two) and pass breakups (two). Armstrong has Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly at his disposal in the passing game. Westerkamp leads Nebraska in receptions (27), touchdowns (4), and is second on the team in receiving yards to Reilly (352-to-350). With both averaging at least 13 yards per catch, Hillary will need to be physical at the line of scrimmage to limit separation and make things challenging on the fragile Armstrong.
Others to Note
Vince Biegel OLB: Biegel was right with Schobert on defense, leading the team with nine tackles and assisted on a sack. Nebraska will certainly pay extra attention to Schobert on Saturday and that could lead to more opportunities for Biegel to potentially get after Armstrong, something Biegel is certainly capable of with this six tackles for loss and three sacks on the season.
Troy Fumagalli TE: Fumagalli’s season hasn’t gotten off the way he envisioned, as injuries have limited him to three games and four catches. With Traylor out, however, Fumagalli will be the main weapon at tight end and will be counted on to make the big catches in critical situations, something he developed the reputation for last season.
Rafael Gaglianone K: Gaglianone has had an uneven start to his season, having gone 6-for-10 on field goals and missing one in three straight games. Points are currently at a premium for Wisconsin with the struggles on offense, so Gaglianone will need to deliver in order to prevent the Badgers from leaving points on the field.
Dare Ogunbowale RB: Ogunbowale has been inconsistent running the football but has been a big weapon in the passing game. Against Iowa, the redshirt junior registered four catches and posted a season-high 43 receiving yards. With Wisconsin needing options in the passing game, Ogunbowale has proven to be reliable target in the flat, as he has 14 catches for 109 yards on the season. Considering UW is converting on only 41 percent of third downs this season and Ogunbowale can make people miss, he might not be a bad option for the offense.