LINCOLN, Neb. – Welcome to the 2016 Big Ten West championship game.
In one corner we have No. 7 Nebraska, re-emerging as a force in the Big Ten, 7-0 with a parking lot full of critics.
In the other, No. 11 Wisconsin, which was embarrassed the last time it made it to Indianapolis in 2014 and can smell a rematch with Ohio State or Michigan.
This heavyweight bout will likely decide the fates of both of these teams. Here are five key things to watch this week.
1. The ghost of Camp Randall
You’ll hear it all week. The 408 rushing yards by Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon. The snow. The embarrassment. The 59-24 loss at Wisconsin in 2014.
This is a new Nebraska team, as coach Mike Riley pointed out during his press conference on Monday. Senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong also mentioned how different this team is.
But that scar from 2014 is deep, and that will be a key story line this week. Is this finally the game Nebraska can give Wisconsin a counterpunch and make this slowly forming rivalry two-sided?
2. That Wisconsin defense
Even with the loss of leading tackler Jack Cichy, this Wisconsin defense is scary good.
The Badgers only give up, on average, 14 points, 300 total yards and 102 rushing yards per game.
They’re the best open-field tackling team in the conference and love creating messy games with weird scores like 30-6 and 17-9.
Despite being in the top few in nearly every offensive category in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s offense has been inconsistent the past few weeks. The run game has sputtered, quarterback Tommy Armstrong is throwing more interceptions and the offense has been taking a while to really get going.
Will Nebraska have enough firepower to counter Wisconsin’s wall of a defense?
3. The run game question
Despite fans yearning for more Devine Ozigbo, senior running back Terrell Newby has solidified himself as the lead back the past two weeks while Ozigbo rests a hurt ankle.
But poor running on first down seemed to really bother the Nebraska coaches.
And the main reason why Nebraska hasn’t had a good rhythm on offense is because of an inability to run on first down.
So, with an injured offensive line going against Wisconsin’s huge front four, will Nebraska be able to get in a groove, if it can’t run?
And, if the Huskers can’t run, what else will they do? Will they live and die with the run, or adapt to something they haven’t done as much, like bubble screens and short passes?
4. The Mike Riley-Paul Chryst relationship
There might not be two coaches who know each other better than Riley and Chryst. The two coached together at a few different places during the 1990s and run very similar offenses.
As Riley said Monday, both are dealing with unconventional quarterback situations, and that throws a proverbial wrench into what both like to do offensively.
So will either coach have a hunch of what the other will do? How will the chess match shape up on Saturday in Madison, Wis.?
5. The offensive line
The biggest question going into this game is how the Nebraska offensive line can hold up.
With both Nick Gates and David Knevel nursing ankle injuries, will Nebraska be able to protect Armstrong? Will Armstrong have to throw on the run more? Will Nebraska be able to run, or really do anything, offensively against Wisconsin?
That’s what the game might come down to: Can Nebraska’s offensive line do anything to slow the Wisconsin pass rush?