The Nebraska Cornhuskers have two football teams from the state of Indiana to take care of before heading into Madison to face the Wisconsin Badgers. They’ll take on the Iowa Hawkeyes the day after Thanksgiving in a game that could ultimately decide the Big Ten West’s representative in Indianapolis. Let’s gauge these teams and see which is the bigger roadblock for the Huskers in their pursuit of excellence.
Wisconsin kicked off the year downing the LSU Tigers in a classic Big Ten-style brawl, 16-14. Much like Nebraska’s win over Oregon, the luster of the win has faded as the Bayou Bengals’ season has worn on. The Tigers barely defeated a so-so Mississippi State team (23-20) in Baton Rouge before sinking at Auburn, 18-13.
Use whatever choice slur you’d like about the Ducks; at least they still have the same head coach they brought into the season. Last week, Wisconsin went into Michigan Stadium and gave Jim Harbaugh’s team all it could handle before eventually falling, 14-7.
They share a bye with the Huskers this week, and there’s no doubt it’s as welcomed.
Six UW players were listed as questionable versus Michigan. Linebacker Vince Biegel is still expected to be out with a foot injury when Nebraska visits, while cornerback Natrell Jamerson will be on the shelf even longer thanks to a bum leg. Four Badgers are out for the year including kicker Rafael Gaglianone.
If Wisconsin is going to take advantage of a Nebraska run defense that isn’t lighting the world on fire, Badgers running back Corey Clement is going to be the guy to do it.
Interestingly, Wisconsin was able to put up only 187 yards on the ground versus Georgia State in Camp Randall (3.8 yards per attempt) with only one touchdown. Despite one-upping then-No. 22 Michigan State 30-6, only 122 yards were generated via the rushing attack, though the Badgers did have two scores to show for it.
No matter which quarterback Wisconsin trots out, they could play right into the Nebraska secondary’s hands. The Badgers’ signal-callers have thrown at least one interception in all but one game including Alex Hornibrook’s four total against Michigan State (one) and Michigan (three). While the Wolverines currently boast the 2nd best passing defense in the nation, Nebraska’s isn’t anything to sneeze at sitting at No. 31.
The Badgers’ rushing defense should prove stingy. It held LSU to 126 yards (largely thanks to the offense’s grinding style that kept Leonard Fournette off the field), and Michigan couldn’t crack three yards per carry on 44 attempts.
Wisconsin also plays opportunistic pass defense, having snared three picks versus Michigan State and one versus Michigan, a team that has thrown a mere two interceptions (matching Nebraska’s total). However, the Badgers have given up 250 passing yards in that dominant win over the Spartans and 219 in their visit to Ann Arbor.
This is a game that will likely come down to turnovers, much like Wisconsin’s earlier game against Michigan State. Unfortunately for the Big Red, this game will be in friendly confines for the Badgers, making the margin for error extremely small.
Expect Nebraska to still look for the big play through the air, but be very cautious about when to heave the ball deep.
Iowa presents a different challenge.
We’ve already seen the Hawkeyes lose to North Dakota State and a Northwestern team that Nebraska dispatched, both of those games taking place in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes don’t face Ohio State but will host Wisconsin and Michigan as well. We’ve established that Kinnick Stadium is more an observational area than a hostile atmosphere for visiting teams.
The key to this game is how mentally sound Nebraska can play against its border-sharing buddy.
Following Wisconsin, the Huskers will surely visit Ohio State as an underdog, and nobody expects Nebraska to walk away from Columbus with a victory aside from Big Red fans and some slick Vegas gamblers. However, the Huskers have the opportunity to get their minds right regardless of whether they win or lose versus the Buckeyes. They host both Minnesota and Maryland before The Heroes Game®.
(I’m pretty sure I’m near-legally obligated to call it that, sadly.)
Forecasting what to expect from Iowa is akin to a Nebraska weatherman predicting not only when winter weather will hit, but how long it’ll stick around before the Cornhusker State sees 70 degree days again.
That said, Iowa isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with its rushing attack, currently ranked 95th in the nation. Its passing game’s even worse at 96th. Its rushing defense doesn’t offer much hope, either — it yields 183 yards per game. It doesn’t help that the Hawkeyes’ quarterback-run defense is… well, not good.
Its aerial defense is a different story — and should be — thanks to All-Everything defensive back Desmond King. The Hawkeyes are currently ranked 21st in pass defense. However, much as Nebraska’s run defense didn’t look half bad statistically last year, why bother dealing with Iowa’s defensive strength when you can grind out the clock and rack up points on the ground? The Huskers have shown that this is their thing in 2016.
There is one definite positive for Iowa, though. The Hawkeyes do currently boast a plus-five turnover margin. If it can continue an upward trend in takeaways, the Hawkeyes have a chance to turn their current 3-2 record into something more respectable come Nov. 25. They travel to face Minnesota this weekend, so we’ll get an even better idea of the opposition Nebraska faces later on this year.
Right now Wisconsin gets the nod as the superior team. The Badgers’ talent is better; their overall defensive effort is better despite having more players dinged up, sidelined or out for the year; and they simply play a better brand of football.
It’s quite possible that Nebraska will end the latter half of October with a pair of losses (one at the hands of the Badgers), but the Huskers rebounded to go 3-1 in their final four games of 2015 with a far more erratic team.
NU’s only loss in that stretch was a 28-20 affair in Lincoln against then-No. 3 Iowa. Keep in mind that Tommy Armstrong served up four interceptions that day. If he hadn’t done that, Nebraska’s chances of winning would have risen dramatically. This season, the Husker signal-caller has been playing far more disciplined football.
We’ll see if Iowa can bounce back after a rocky start, but as it stands, Wisconsin proves the mightier challenge by far.