Two weekends in a row now, No. 8 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2 B1G) has found a way to grind out, big, all-important wins. The 23-17 overtime clash with No. 7 Nebraska is just the latest example.
After losing two in a row to No. 4 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State (two more close games, mind you), the Badgers desperately needed to beat Big Ten rival Iowa in order to get back on track. Iowa hasn’t been great this season, but rivalry games are always tricky — the Badgers and Hawkeyes play for the Heartland trophy in one of the Big Ten’s most physical rivalries — and Wisconsin did have to tough out physical Iowa team as well as a hostile Kinnick Stadium crowd. The Badgers ended up winning a 17-9 slugfest, proving that a great defense can and does cover up a multitude of weaknesses on the other side of the ball.
Against Nebraska, a team that came into the game undefeated and as one of the hottest college football programs in the country, the Badgers once again relied on their defense, but they did get some help from a consistent running game as well.
The Badgers rushed for 223 yards as a team, 120 and a touchdown coming from senior scatback Dare Ogunbowale, who was tough for Nebraska to tackle — to say the least. Ogunbowale rushed for 10. 9 yards per touch and provided the Badgers with the winning touchdown in overtime. It was an 11 yard scamper that showed off his vision, footwork and ultimately, open field explosion.
If Ogunbowale can capitalize on the extended touches and become a compliment to Corey Clement — who rushed 19 times for 82 yards against the Huskers — an already strong Badgers’ running game could become unstoppable heading into November and ultimately championship and bowl season. Though Clement is the true breadwinner of Wisconsin’s backfield, Ogunbowale could end up being the X-factor, especially if Paul Chryst continues to deploy a two-quarterback system between Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston — something that never seems to help out an offense’s stagnancy issues.
“Yeah, Dare, he came up big,” Chryst said after the game. “I thought that a lot of it, he hadn’t been doing a ton of running out of our three wides. I thought that had a pretty good plan going in. Kids executed and I thought that he ran hard and I thought he was decisive. I thought it was a big part of getting us going.”
With all of that being said, it’s still Wisconsin’s defense that has and will continue to keep it in Big Ten title contender category, and that defense once again showed up against Nebraska.
The Badgers allowed only 305 yards of total offense to the Cornhuskers, mostly shutting down senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. Armstrong did rush for 39 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, but Wisconsin held him to just 12-of-31 passing for 153 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Badgers allowed star receiver Jordan Westerkamp only three catches for 62 yards, and no Nebraska rusher was able to eclipse the 100 yard mark. Terrell Newby led the way for the Huskers with 77 yards on 17 carries.
To put Wisconsin’s defensive efforts into perspective, consider that Nebraska put up 409 yards on Purdue, 360 on Indiana and 423 on Illinois. It was just Armstrong Jr.’s second two-interception game this season and the Badgers notched a season-high 12 passes defended (including 10 pass breakups) and some career highlights. Sophomore linebacker Ryan Connelly notched 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and two pass break ups, which were all career-highs, and junior linebacker Garret Dooley matched a career-high with his seven tackles (including a sack).
“Up front, I thought our (defensive) line did a nice job and corners were challenged and made some plays,” Chryst said. “It was a team defense. I think it starts with a good plan and the guys are going out and executing and they’re playing the game.”
With a tough running game and a stout defense, Wisconsin has proven that it can hang with any team in the Big Ten. Even in the two losses this season, the Badgers kept it close and played physical football.
And now they’re out of the teeth of the schedule. It’s been a grueling stretch for Wisconsin, but the Badgers are now rewarded with games against Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota to end the season, with the season-ending clash with the Golden Gophers really looking like the only true test of that bunch. The Wildcats, Fighting Illini and Boilermakers are a combined 9-15 at this point of the season.
Wisconsin is firmly a top 10 team nationally and the Badgers can control their own destiny as long as they keep winning. There’s a good chance Nebraska falls for the second-straight week at No. 6 Ohio State, though there’s no guarantees, and the Gophers — currently 2nd in the Big Ten West with the same record as Wisconsin — still have to play Nebraska and the clash with the Badgers is at Camp Randall stadium.
It’s going to be tough to knock off either Michigan or Ohio State in the Big Ten championship, but Wisconsin has proven that it can play both teams close, and in the past two weekend’s the Badgers have proven that they can win close games as well.
When push comes to shove, Wisconsin has proven that it is indeed a Big Ten title worthy team.