Paul Chryst uses the word “opportunity” often, interchangeable to describe a player having his chance to fill in for an injured player or when he’s talking about an upcoming game. No.11 Wisconsin will have another “opportunity” to knock off a team ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll when it squares off with No. 7 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers will mark Wisconsin’s fifth top-10 team they have faced this season, the most the program has played in any given season.
Here are BadgerNation’s five keys to a Wisconsin victory on Saturday against Nebraska in the battle for the Freedom Trophy.
1, Surviving the Defensive Injuries
In what has been a theme this season, Wisconsin loses a player on defense and the defense doesn’t miss a beat with whoever fills in. Wisconsin was without the services of nose tackle Olive Sagapolu last week and the defense still held Iowa’s rushing attack to 83 yards. Junior Conor Sheehy will once again fill in at nose with Sagapolu missing a second straight game and sophomore Ryan Connelly will slide into the middle linebacker spot with Jack Cichy (torn pectoral) out for the season. How Wisconsin responds without Cichy – the team’s leading tackler (60) - will be tough but Connelly (19 career games) and junior Leon Jacobs (38 career games) have seen significant time in their careers. Whoever works next to sophomore T.J. Edwards will play a key role in helping take away a rushing attack that has three players averaging at least 53.3 yards per game.
2, Playing Mistake Free Football
Wisconsin typically doesn’t beat themselves with penalties, as the Badgers are coming off its second game this year without a penalty and have committed a conference-low 22. However, the Badgers have been spotty taking care of the football. Nebraska has been opportunistic on defense this year and lead the Big Ten with 13 interceptions. Alex Hornibrook didn’t throw an interception against Iowa but has thrown six since he was inserted into the lineup against Georgia State. Hornibrook can’t allow Nebraska the chance at points off of turnovers, as the Huskers have turned the 14 turnover they have created into 56 points.
3, Creating Defensive Pressure
With the loss of Cichy, Wisconsin is losing a player who has accumulated 43 tackles, five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries in Big Ten play. Losing a player who has shown to be able to create plays in the backfield will hurt considering Wisconsin is preparing to defend Tommy Armstrong. Not only is Armstrong capable of making plays with his feet, Nebraska has allowed only five sacks this season. OLBs Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt will be key in creating pressure against Armstrong and forcing him to beat Wisconsin with his arm. If Watt, who has generated 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks since the start of conference play, and Biegel or Garret Dooley can cause Armstrong to rush a throw before getting his feet set, the Badgers’ secondary will need to be ready. Armstrong has thrown five interceptions on the year but four have come over the last three games.
4, Controlling the Clock
Wisconsin’s average possession time is 34:24, which is second in the Big Ten, and Nebraska is right behind at 34:14. If Wisconsin wants to win that battle, they’ll need to rely on the offensive line to consistently win in the trenches. Over the last two weeks Wisconsin has used a number of different offensive line combinations throughout the game and have been able to help pave the way for Corey Clement to record consecutive 100-yard rushing games. The number of offensive line combinations during the game will continue, but it remains to be seen if multiple quarterbacks will be used. Whatever the scenario, Chryst will need to be smart when he interchanging players to not alter a rhythm.
5, Third Down Defense
Nebraska is the third team Wisconsin has faced this year that ranks in the top three in third down conversions. The Cornhuskers are converting on 49 percent of their chances, which leads the Big Ten. The other two teams are Ohio State (48.6 percent) and Michigan (48.5 percent), but Wisconsin held those two teams to a combined 9-for-30 (30 percent) on third down. Wisconsin’s defense has been consistent all year in getting teams off the field, only allowed teams to convert on 24.7 percent of the chances. Wisconsin has done well of allowing minimal gain on first and second down and forcing opponents to convert a third-and-long allowing defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to dial up the pressures. This season Wisconsin has registered 10 sacks, eight quarterback hurries and two tackles for loss on third down.
The tests keep coming for Wisconsin as Nebraska – the fourth top-10 team in the last five games - will challenge the Badgers in every phase. But it is fair to say this will be Nebraska’s toughest test this season considering the seven teams Nebraska have faced this year are a combined 20-30 and only two teams currently have winning records. Despite injuries to key players, Wisconsin continues to find ways to have success as a team. Wisconsin’s defense is going to need to contain Armstrong from beating them with his feet and they can’t allow him many second chances, whether that’s letting him escape a tackle or committing a penalty on third down. If Wisconsin can avoid those two areas, the Badgers offense should be able to give them enough production. Wisconsin wins, 24-14.