If Iowa-Wisconsin is old hate and Iowa-Nebraska is new hate, Wisconsin-Nebraska feels more like a family grudge, a pair of distant — but cordial — hairy-legged Highland cousins lumped into the same caber-tossing bracket.
The tale’s been told many times: Barry Alvarez was a standout linebacker with the Cornhuskers in the late 1960s, and brought The Bob Devaney Way — grit, killer offensive lines, a gazillion walk-ons — with him as tent poles in the Great Badgers Revival that launched 26 years ago, a foundation built on Lincoln logs. Madison is Lincoln East, Lincoln is Madison West, and the circle of burly life and bloody knuckles stomps gloriously up the standings.
Of course, Bucky MacBadger has also taken four of the last five caber tosses since the series became an all-Big Ten affair in 2011 — and the relative distance has been significant, with those four Wisconsin victories coming by an average margin of 26.8 points.
In fact, we just passed the 50th anniversary of the last time the Big Red won in Mad City, when Alvarez helped steer the Huskers’ defense to a 31-3 rout on Oct. 8, 1966.
Because that’s the beauty of this series, isn’t it? The mantra then is the mantra now: Low man wins. Control the box Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, where Nebraska (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) visits Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2) in a tussle with XXXL stakes, and the rest usually has a way of taking care of itself.
One particular facet of the chess game could wind up especially telling — first downs. And, more specifically, some of the Huskers’ recent inconsistencies when facing them:
#Huskers with a mere 12 rushing attempts. Inability to produce rushing yards on first down has been factor.
— Brian Rosenthal (@GBRosenthal) October 22, 2016
Stat alert: Through three quarters Saturday, Nebraska had seven tailback carries on first down that went for 2 yards or less. #Huskers
— Steven M. Sipple (@HuskerExtraSip) October 23, 2016
So who’s got the edge in terms of setting the tempo at the start of a drive? Comparatively speaking, the stats break down like this:
WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL
- The Huskers’ pass offense on first down: 24-for-49, 130.75 passer rating, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 49.0 completion percentage — the latter ranking No. 13 out of 14 Big Ten schools.
- The Badgers’ pass defense on first down: 46-for-84, 110.02 opponent passer rating, three touchdowns, four interceptions and a 54.8 completion percentage — the latter ranking sixth in the league.
- The Huskers’ rushing offense on first down: 184 attempts, 855 yards, 26 runs of 10 yards or more, eight runs of 20 yards or more, 4.65 per attempt — the latter ranking seventh in the Big Ten.
- The Badgers’ rushing defense on first down: 107 attempts, 450 yards, 15 runs of 10 yards or more, two runs of 20 yards or more, 4.21 per attempt — the latter ranking ninth in the Big Ten.
WHEN WISCONSIN HAS THE BALL
- The Huskers’ pass defense on first down: 51-for-81, 116.30 opponent passer rating and a 63.0 completion percentage — the latter ranking 13th in the Big Ten.
- The Badgers’ pass offense on first down: 31-for-51, 143.71 passer rating and a 60.8 percent — the latter ranking third in the Big Ten.
- The Huskers’ rushing defense on first down: 112 attempts, 461 yards, 4.12 per attempt — the latter ranking seventh in the Big Ten.
- The Badgers’ rushing offense on first down: 161 attempts, 801 yards, 4.98 per attempt — the latter ranking fifth in the Big Ten.
The takeaway? There’s a reason Wisconsin ranks No. 13 nationally in opponent punts per play (0.09, Michigan is No. 1, at 0.14). The Badgers are a pain in the backside to run on early, giving the defense the down-and-distance edge right out of the chute.
And when it comes to mixing it up through the air, Wisconsin might have a better shot at converting a few cheapies than the Huskers have — at least, so far.
Also, nothing — for either side — figures to come easy. So, basically, same as it ever was.