A week after defeating a tough Iowa team in a rivalry game, winning the Heartland Trophy in the process, the Wisconsin Badgers (5-2, 2-2 B1G) face their next toughest task of the season.
To say that it’s been a rough stretch of games for the Badgers would be an understatement. Wisconsin was 4-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country heading into a game at No. 4 Michigan, a matchup that resulted in a two-game losing streak. Wisconsin was defeated by Michigan, 14-7, and then lost to No. 2 Ohio State in overtime, 30-23.
The Badgers did beat Iowa, 17-9, but rivalry games are always hard-fought — and this one was too.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin there’s no rest for the weary — not just yet — because a game against undefeated and No. 7-ranked Nebraska (7-0 4-0 B1G) is next on the schedule.
If there’s any good news for Wisconsin it’s that the game is at Camp Randall Stadium, providing the Badgers with a bit of home-field advantage. Nebraska is also relatively untested so far this season, at least in comparison to some other schedules across the Big Ten. Arguably, Nebraska’s toughest game this season was against No. 22 Oregon, and that game was at home. The Ducks are also currently 2-5 on the season, which does make Nebraska’s win slightly less impressive in hindsight.
Still, it’s not as if the Huskers are chopped liver.
Nebraska is currently ranked No. 3 in the Big Ten in total offense and No. 4 in total defense. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has been extremely impressive on the season so far, throwing for 1,611 yards and 11 touchdowns (five interceptions) while rushing for 380 yards and six touchdowns, and the Huskers’ defense is only allowing 342.9 yards per game.
Though Nebraska’s defense has been stout, the Cornhuskers’ run defense is better than its pass defense. Nebraska is giving up only 124.43 rush yards per game (nine total rushing touchdowns) compared to 218.4 yards per game through the air. With that said, the Huskers have given up only six passing touchdowns, while notching 13 interceptions — which is an impressive ratio.
For Wisconsin’s offense, it’s clearly the run game that keeps it going. The Badgers’ quarterbacks have been slightly underwhelming at times this season, so much so that Paul Chryst used both Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston against Iowa.
Wisconsin’s rushing game, though, has been a strength — especially as of late.
Senior Corey Clement rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries against Iowa. Even against Ohio State’s stout defense, he put up 164 yards on 6.6 yards per carry.
And therein lies the key for Wisconsin in this huge season-defining game against the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska’s strength this season on defense has been stopping the run and getting takeaways, so what better way to counter strength than with strength?
Clement has proven he can carry a heavy burden for Wisconsin’s offense, and with likely easier games against Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota remaining on the schedule, what do the Badgers have to lose?
Giving the ball to Clement 30-plus times should be an expectation for Chryst and the Badgers. Just like the game plan against Iowa, Wisconsin would be smart to pound the ball and slowly but surely wear down Nebraska’s defense front. Fight strength with strength, knowing that Clement can both carry the load and be productive in the process.
Eventually, Nebraska may be forced to load the box in order to stop Wisconsin’s run game and that’s when the Badgers can go up top, looking to take advantage of a pass defense that’s ranked 10th in the Big Ten, giving up 218.4 yards per game through the air.
Nebraska’s pass defense is opportunistic, but Wisconsin can counter that by taking away the opportunities. The Badgers should focus on the long game within the game. Focus on slowly but surely wearing down Nebraska’s defense, only taking chances through the air when it has to.
Clement has rushed 20 or more times in five games this season and he’s averaging a steady 4.34 yards per carry (six touchdowns on the season). Sure, strength versus strength is always a risk, but Wisconsin has proof that its run game can get the job done against tough defensive fronts.
Now is the time to have faith in what has gotten the team to this point so far, because the run game does have the potential to carry Wisconsin all the way to Indianapolis and the Big Ten championship game.
“I have to finish strong,” Clement told Lee Barfknecht of Omaha.com. “If I have to take 50 carries a game, so be it.”
So be it.