LINCOLN, Neb. — Congratulations, you made it this far.
The first game you circled on your calendar when you got the 2016 schedule, the game you cleared your evening for, it’s finally here.
And wouldn’t you know it? Both teams made it a treat.
No. 7 Nebraska (7-0, 4-0) heads to No. 11 Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday for what is shaping up to be the Big Ten West championship game.
On the line: a spot in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
On the field: Let’s break that down.
When Nebraska has the ball
The biggest question this week will be if Nebraska’s offensive line will be up to the challenge.
Nick Gates and David Knevel will start at tackles coming off ankle injuries, and Tanner Farmer will start at right guard after making his way back from a knee injury. The line hasn’t played well the past two weeks, primarily because of injuries.
This week, they’ll go up against the best defensive front they’ve seen all year, and the biggest question will be if that line will be able to create some holes for the Nebraska running backs.
Nebraska has been absolutely dedicated to the run game this year but hasn’t been able to do it consistently, even last week against Purdue, the worst rush defense in the Big Ten.
Now, Nebraska will try against the 10th best run defense in the country, which gives up just a hair more than 100 yards per game.
It sounds like sophomore running back Devine Ozigbo will be back, but it’s unclear 1) how much he’ll play and 2) how effective he’ll be against the mountain that is the Wisconsin line.
When Nebraska can’t run, will it dump it off with bubble screens? Take shots down the field? How will it get yards on first down if it can’t run it?
Wisconsin has kept teams under 14 points in every game except one, its 30-23 loss at Ohio State.
The Badgers are without their leading tackler, linebacker Jack Cincy, but that shouldn’t matter much because this defense is so deep and so talented.
Nebraska is going to have a long day on offense.
When Wisconsin has the ball
This week, senior safety Nate Gerry called Wisconsin “the best offense” Nebraska has played this year.
The numbers don’t really agree with that.
The Badgers are 10th in scoring in the Big Ten. Ninth in total offense. Seventh in rush offense. Ninth in pass offense.
In other words, an incredibly average attack.
But the key to Wisconsin’s offense isn’t the yards or the points. The mission of the Wisconsin offense is to just exist on the field and rest that defense. The Badgers are second in time of possession in the Big Ten, and average 34 minutes of possession a game.
So really, their yards don’t matter, as long as they just barely score more than you.
The problem this week is it’ll be tough to score on this Nebraska defense. While the Huskers offense has started to sputter, the Nebraska defense is starting to find its groove.
The main thing Nebraska will need to focus on is stopping the run, which Wisconsin seems to be married to the past two games. Against Iowa, Wisconsin running back Corey Clement rushed 35 times for 134 yards and one touchdown, and the week prior against Ohio State, he ran 25 times for 164 yards.
The Nebraska front four have been excellent at stopping the run. Stop Clement, or at least slow him down, and the Wisconsin offense won’t be able to kill that clock.
Wisconsin and Nebraska are 11th and 12th in punting, so that cancels each other out.
Where Nebraska has the advantage this week is with junior punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El and kicker Drew Brown.
Pierson-El looks more and more like himself after a year full of injuries last season. He’s always shown up in the past in big games, so don’t put a big punt return past him this week.
Drew Brown is 7 of 9 on the season, but if you ask coach Mike Riley, he’s really 7 of 8 because Riley trotted Brown out for a 56-yard field goal in the wind when the coach now says he shouldn’t have.
Regardless, Brown is usually automatic from about 45 yards and in. In a game that’s surely going to be low-scoring and determined by a handful of possessions, Brown’s consistency will be key.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, will be without starting kicker Rafael Gaglianone, who is out for the rest of the season with a back injury. His replacement, Andrew Endicott, is 5 of 7 this year.
Mike Riley said this week coaching against Paul Chryst is like coaching against family. The two know each other well. The key will be who wins the chess match.
The edge goes to Riley for a few reasons. First, Nebraska is 7-0. It’s hard to find a single game in which Riley has made a coaching mistake that cost Nebraska anything. Second, Riley has Nebraska playing its best football in years, and is in total control of the direction of this team. This week, senior safety Nate Gerry said everyone is buying in to this coaching staff. And it shows.
Get ready for a low-scoring, calculated, beautiful football game.
Don’t expect either offense to be able to do much against the opposing defense. This is one of those games that comes down to field goals, special teams and whoever gets the biggest defensive play, be that a pick-6, fumble recovery in the red zone or such.
This is a monumental game for the direction of this Nebraska program, and a win would change the course of this season from “Nebraska: The team who doesn’t deserve their ranking” to “Nebraska: Oh, wait, maybe they are pretty good.”
This game will be close until the end, where Nebraska has learned to close.
Chris Heady’s prediction: Nebraska 16, Wisconsin 14