Big Ten commissioner James Delaney couldn’t have scripted it any better: the University of Wisconsin football team is ranked seventh in the country, and the University of Nebraska is ranked eighth. And the two will kick off their Big Ten seasons Saturday night in primetime on ABC. The Badgers have their sights set on another Rose Bowl or even a national championship, but the Cornhuskers want to send a strong message that not only do they belong in the Big Ten, they belong at the top.
Wisconsin’s Lethal Passing Tandem of Wilson and Toon
For years the Badgers have used quarterbacks just good enough to keep defenses off a power-running offense that uses speedy backs and the kind of giant offensive linemen you can only grow in the Midwest. The 2010 Badgers made it to the Rose Bowl running twice as often as they threw. This year, the Badgers have said, “Screw that! Meet Russell Wilson!”
Combining a powerful arm with great football instincts and tremendous foot speed, senior Wilson is the most energetic, exciting and dynamic quarterback Wisconsin has had in years (maybe in decades). While it’s unknown if Wilson’s flash will work in the hard-hitting Big Ten, in four preseason games so far Wilson has put up some big numbers. His 12.5 yards per completion leads the NCAA. His 218.4 passer rating ranks second. His 11 touchdown passes rank eighth.
Five of those touchdowns have gone to the fantastically named senior Nick Toon, far and away Wilson’s favorite receiver so far. With every week Toon seems to improve his draft level, combining great route-running with soft hands and a willingness to take the big hit. The Cornhuskers’ passing attack just doesn’t measure up.
Cornhuskers Can Run Martinez and Burkhead Interchangeably
If the Cornhuskers can shut down the Wilson-Toon combination, Wisconsin will have to go the ground. While the Badgers average over 100 more passing yards per game, the Cornhuskers gain more yards on the ground. The two teams have each scored 16 rushing touchdowns so far, with Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (360 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, nine touchdowns) and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez (421 yards, 6.7 yards per carry, seven touchdowns) doing the bulk of the work.
Nebraska’s edge may be in their ability to sub Martinez for Rex Burkhead (430, 6.7, seven) without losing any production. James White, Ball’s backup, hasn’t shown quite the same durability, averaging 15 fewer yards per game. A small edge, but one the Cornhuskers will need if they want to contend with the sixth-highest scoring offense in the NCAA. Wisconsin converts over half its third downs, meaning Nebraska must grind out offensive drives to keep their defense rested.
Badgers Have Defensive Advantage, but Special Teams Might Help Out Cornhuskers
The Badgers defense enters Saturday’s game ranked third in the NCAA with 8.5 points allowed per game, but this is mostly due to the scrub opponents they’ve played (UNLV, South Dakota, etc.). The Cornhuskers haven’t exactly played LSU either, so it’s tough to think that either team will post a score as as lopsided as those of the first four weeks. Still, Wisconsin appears to be the slightly better defensive team, just outranking Nebraska in both sacks and defensed passes.
Each defense has a lineman with three sacks already (Nebraska’s Cameron Meredith and Wisconsin’s David Gilbert), but Wisconsin’s sure tackling among its linebackers and secondary will make it even harder for Nebraska to make big plays.
Nebraska has a sneaky special teams advantage, however, ranking first in the NCAA with 35.0 yards per kickoff return. Wisconsin has the slightly better punt-return unit, but Nebraska’s punting is second-best in the nation at 49.0 yards per punt. Neither team has produced a special teams touchdown yet, but Nebraska’s edge may give them shorter fields.
It is so much harder to win on the road in college football than it is in the NFL. Madison will have had an entire afternoon to pregame, and the crowd noise at a stadium notorious for its volume will be deafening. Add in head coach Bret Bielema’s 37-3 home record, and the Badgers should open up their conference schedule with a win. Badgers 31, Cornhuskers 21.