If Wisconsin wants to stay in the race for the Big Ten West Division, the Badgers are facing a must win game against Nebraska. It doesn’t help that Wisconsin, already without tailback Corey Clement, will be without tight end Austin Traylor (arm) for 4-to-8 weeks, meaning a struggling offense will be without another weapon.
Here are Badger Nation’s five keys to a Wisconsin victory over Nebraska, which would be the first victory in school history in Lincoln.
1, Establishing the passing game
Nebraska has the worst pass defense in the nation, allowing 353.8 yards a game, but that might not matter if receivers don’t step up to help quarterback Joel Stave. Senior Alex Erickson (concussion) is expected to play, but Rob Wheelwright will still likely see his intended targets go up. Wheelwright finished the game against Iowa with four catches but also had three drops. Wheelwright is tied for second on the team for receptions and receiving yards but hasn’t had the same kind of impact as he had in the early part of the season. That has to change.
2, Containing Tommy Armstrong
Wisconsin’s defense will have a tough test against Armstrong, who leads the Big Ten in passing yards (274.2 yards a game) and total offense (305.4 ypg). Not surprising, outside linebacker Joe Schobert will be the key in making sure Armstrong can’t have success, extend the play and break containment. Schobert has been on fire through five games, leading the NCAA in sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (13). If Schobert can consistently get after Armstrong, who has thrown six interceptions this season, it could force him into making some poor decisions.
3, Protecting the red zone
This will be an interesting matchup inside the 20-yard line. Wisconsin ranks first in the Big Ten in red zone defense (55.6 percent), having allowed three touchdowns on nine trips. Nebraska is second in the Big Ten in red zone offense (91.7 percent). Wisconsin’s defense is going to have to win this battle, especially if the offense continues to struggle to score, to keep the game as close. Over the last three seasons under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Wisconsin has allowed an average of just 2.31 opponent drives per game to enter the red zone.
4, Converting on third downs
Wisconsin is only converting on 41.3 percent of third downs, one of the reasons why the offense has been inconsistent establishing drives. Keeping drives alive will begin in the trenches, as Wisconsin’s offensive line needs to find a way to consistently get the better push. If Wisconsin wants to rely on its passing game to have success against Nebraska’s porous secondary, the offensive line will need to give Stave time to go through his reads and help put the unit in favorable situations to convert.
5, Play of Wisconsin’s cornerbacks
This will be Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton toughest test of the season when they line up against Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly, both of whom have at least 350 receiving yards. Hillary and Shelton have played well this season, as both have been able to play tight coverage and helped hold Iowa to 77 yards passing last week. That small of a number likely won’t happen this week, but if Wisconsin’s pass rush can have success, it will help the corners stay fresh and limit the amount of time they’ll have to cover the receivers.
There are concerns with how Wisconsin is going to score, especially when the Badgers aren’t at full strength on offense. Even so, I expect Stave to have a bounce-back performance from his four turnovers against the Hawkeyes, and Wisconsin’s defense should be able to keep Nebraska in check. Wisconsin wins, 17-13.