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October 1, 2011

Match-up watch: Wisconsin

NU Run Offense vs. UW Run Defense
This could be the area where Nebraska really sets the tone for the entire game tonight, as the Huskers match-up pretty well against Wisconsin's front seven. What gives NU a bit of an edge is the depth and diversity of its backfield. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is obviously a threat to score whenever he touches the ball, and running back Rex Burkhead is quickly emerging as one of the best all-around backs in the Big Ten.

What really puts the Huskers over the edge though are their three freshmen running backs. Braylon Heard, Aaron Green and Ameer Abdullah all bring unique skill sets to the position, and most importantly an element of speed Wisconsin hasn't seen all season.

The Badgers have some quality linebackers and a decent defensive line, but they simply don't have the athleticism to keep up with Nebraska's variety of rushing weapons. The Huskers will have to keep UW's defense honest with the pass to keep it from loading up the box, but there should be plenty of yards out there tonight for Nebraska on the ground.


NU Pass Offense vs. UW Pass Defense
As mentioned, it will be crucial for Nebraska to throw the football effectively if they are to keep Wisconsin from completely committing to stopping the run. Martinez continues to be inconsistent as a passer, looking great on one drive and then abysmal the next. His accuracy tonight will go a long way in determining the game's outcome.

If Martinez can get the ball to his receivers, the potential is there for the Huskers to make some plays through the air. With a corps of speedy young receivers, the play-action pass could be a huge weapon for NU if the Badgers play up on the line of scrimmage to shut down the run. Plus, UW is a little banged up in the secondary, and it's looking like it will be out one of its starting safeties who was injured last week against South Dakota State.

Still, the Badgers have enough talent in their defensive backfield to keep up with NU's wide outs for most of the game, and it will come down to Martinez being able to make some clutch throws. Martinez has had his moments on the road of the past two seasons, but until he proves he can be counted on to consistently come up big in big time road games, you have to give the edge here to Wisconsin.


UW Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Nebraska has already had its issues with stopping the run this season, and it hasn't faced anything like what Wisconsin will bring to the table tonight. Behind star running backs James White and Montee Ball, the Badgers are averaging 245.5 yards per game on the ground. Ball leads the way for the UW's rushing attack with 360 yards and a whopping nine touchdowns already.

On the other side, the Huskers have struggled to stop the likes of Washington's Chris Polk and Fresno State's Robbie Rouse, and while Polk is a top-level back, neither present the challenge of the two-headed monster of White and Ball.

The real difference in this area, though, is quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson brings an element to the Badgers' offense it's rarely seen before in his dual-threat ability. His rushing numbers on the year don't say much, but it's when Wilson decides to run and how effective he is when he does take off that make him so dangerous.


UW Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Nebraska got a big lift to its secondary last week when senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard came back for his first game of the year last week against Wyoming. With some live action to knock off the rust, Dennard should be closer to his old self tonight. However, that doesn't solve all the other issues with the Huskers' defensive backfield.

Only senior safety Austin Cassidy has started all four games in the secondary for the NU, as the coaching staff has experimented with a number of different combinations at safety and cornerback. The problem is that with all that shuffling, the back end of the defense hasn't been able to establish much of any consistency or continuity through the non-conference season.

That doesn't bode well against Wisconsin' passing game, as the Badgers feature an experienced and efficient attack with Wilson and leading receiver Nick Toon. Nebraska's coaches have compared UW's receivers to what they saw a couple weeks ago against Washington. If you remember, the Huskies had all sorts of success against NU's young corners. Dennard will help with that, but it's going to take a complete effort from the secondary to slow down Wilson and Co.


Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
This just might be the most lopsided match-up of the entire game, as Wisconsin's special teams units took a big hit when kicker Philip Welch was injured back in fall camp. Welch is expected to return for his first action tonight, but it will be interesting to watch how he comes back from a leg injury that kept him out the past four weeks. The Badgers have been good in the punt return game with Jared Abbrederis averaging 16.8 yards per return, which ranks ninth nationally.

Even so, there really isn't much of a comparison to Nebraska's special teams, which have been close to perfect so far. Junior kick/punter Brett Maher finally missed his first field goal of the season last week, though Wyoming's small uprights may have had something to do with that. Abdullah continues to hold his spot as college football's top kickoff returner at 35.4 yards per return, and he's proven himself as one of the Huskers' top overall playmakers.


Nebraska Will Win If:

As long as Nebraska can convert when it needs to in the passing game, it should be able to put up some points against Wisconsin's defense. The real key though will be for the Huskers' defense to slow down Wilson and the Badgers' offense enough to build a lead. Pressuring Wilson and shutting down the running game will be the most important tasks for the defense, and a turnover or two could make a huge difference either way.

Wisconsin Will Win If:

It can shut down Nebraska's running game and force Martinez to beat them with his arm. That's been a formula teams have used going back to last season, and for the teams that have forced the Huskers to pass, it's worked extremely well. Offensive balance shouldn't be a problem for the Badgers, and they just need to continue protecting the football and putting points on the board.


One of the biggest storylines all week has been how a young Nebraska team would handle playing in a hostile Camp Randall Stadium in a nationally televised game that carries huge historical significance. While head coach Bo Pelini has tried to downplay the magnitude of this game as best he could this week, there's no way the players aren't thinking about just how big a win tonight would be. How the Huskers handle the pressure of all the outside elements could very well decide this game.

Prediction: Nebraska 23, Wisconsin 31

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