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September 28, 2012

All-Out Blitz: Nebraska



Welcome to this week's "All-Out Blitz," where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. Big Ten play opens this weekend, and the Wisconsin Badgers will head to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers. Nebraska will be out for revenge after the Badgers beat them 48-17 during their first ever Big Ten game last season, and the Badgers will need to bring their 'A' game if they want to escape Lincoln with a 1-0 record in Big Ten play.

All Out Blitz: Nebraska

What you need to know about Nebraska

Head coach: Bo Pelini (5th season @ Nebraska), 42-17 (5-3 Big Ten)
Nebraska All-Time Record: 849-350-40 (.701)
2012 Record: 3-1 (0-0 Big Ten)
Ranking: 22 (AP), 20 (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 3-3

Did you read this?

Know Thy Foe: Nebraska

Last year

Nebraska entered the Big Ten last year with a lot of pomp and circumstance. The Big Ten was delighted to add such a prestigious football program to their league, which allowed them to split the conference into two divisions and join the modern world of college football by adding a conference title game. For their part, the Cornhuskers 9or at least their fans) were convinced that Bo Pelini's team would be able to take the Big Ten by storm, and expectations hovered around a division or Big Ten title.

As it turns out, moving through a new league for the first time is pretty hard. The Cornhuskers entered their first conference game ranked No. 8 in the country, but the No. 7 Badgers ran them out of Madison by scoring 41 points after the first quarter. The Huskers recovered with a come-from-behind win over Ohio State at home, a 27-point blowout of Minnesota on the road, and a resounding defeat of Michigan State, but the Huskers fell to Northwestern at home, and Michigan blew them out at the Big House. The Huskers limped to a 2-2 finish in conference play, and fell to No. 10 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.

For most schools, a 9-4 record in the first year of a new conference would be pretty good. But the Cornhusker faithful showed signs of restlessness in the offseason. The Cornhuskers haven't won more than 10 games since 2001, and Nebraska isn't looking to be just "pretty good." The Cornhusker dynasty of the 1990's is still alive and well in the memories of fans, and they're hoping Nebraska can return to being "elite" sometime in the near future.

Season outlook

The Huskers went through their share of Big Ten growing pains last season, and they could pay off as early as this season. The Huskers returned 14 starters this season, and their schedule is a little more favorable than both of Michigan and Michigan State's slates. They have to go on the road to East Lansing in early November, but they get Michigan at home and road games at Iowa and Northwestern look manageable, even though the Wildcats are off to a 4-0 start. The Huskers swap Ohio State for Wisconsin on their home schedule, but a loss to either wouldn't kill them in the race for the Legends division title. 10 wins were about the expectation for the Huskers in the preseason, and while they lost to UCLA in week two, they still look capable of reaching that benchmark.

This year

Nebraska is 3-1 on the season after non-conference play, with their lone loss coming to UCLA out in Pasadena, Calif. It was a game of momentum swings, but the Bruins were able to come out on top after they sacked quarterback Taylor Martinez in the endzone for a safety in the fourth quarter. The Bruins also held Nebraska's eighth-ranked scoring offense to just six points in the second half.

Apart from that second half in the Rose Bowl, the Cornhuskers haven't had much of a problem putting points up on the scoreboard. The Cornhuskers average 48.5 points per game through four games, and they've only been shut out in one quarter so far this season. The Huskers are coming off a 73-7 blowout of FCS Idaho State, and will look to keep up their frantic scoring pace against a Wisconsin defense that has been relatively stout so far this year.

Martinez has been a big part of Nebraska's success so far this season. The junior quarterback appears to have made significant strides as a quarterback, and has been living up to the dual-threat label that was placed on him early in his career.

As a sophomore, Martinez completed just over 56 percent of his passes, and got the Huskers into trouble by throwing eight interceptions to just 13 touchdowns. There was no doubt Martinez could run: he averaged 4.62 yards per carry and was always a threat to tuck the ball and run if none of his receivers were open. But while Martinez is still a threat to run, his biggest strides were made in the passing game. After working on his throwing mechanics during the offseason, Martinez has completed over 70 percent of his passes this season, and has nine touchdowns compared to just one interception.

The Huskers also returned one of the Big Ten's best tailbacks in senior Rex Burkhead, who rushed for 1357 yards in his junior season. Burkhead has just 187 yards on the season so far, but he missed Nebraska's games with UCLA and Arkansas State due to a mild MCL sprain. Burkhead returned against Idaho State and rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns, so he'll almost definitely be a focal point of the Husker offense on Saturday. The Huskers also have a capable backup behind Burkhead in sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who has 416 yards and five touchdowns on the season so far.

The obvious beneficiaries from Martinez's newfound efficiency are Nebraska's wide receivers and tight ends. Sophomore Kenny Bell is on pace to at least match his breakout freshman season, with 11 receptions for 273 yards through four games. But the 6-foot-1 Bell has four touchdowns this season already, compared to three total in his first year with the Huskers. Senior tight end Kyler Reed has bounced back a bit too- he has nine catches for 120 yards this season, after totaling just 15 catches for 257 yards as a highly-touted junior.

The Huskers also returned seven starters on defense, including three out of their four starters on the defensive line. The Husker defense disappointed in 2011 after defensive tackle Jared Crick was lost for the season, but linemen like Cameron Meredith and Eric Martin stepped up to combine for 7.5 sacks on the season. Martin is already off to a fast start: the senior defensive end has 3.5 sacks so far this season.

Will Compton and Sean Fisher are back at middle and buck linebacker, and Andrew Green and Daimion Stafford return to their starting roles in the secondary. But despite their experience, Nebraska's defense has been far from great this season. The Huskers rank 20th in the nation in pass defense, but allow 177 rushing yards per game, putting them at 89th in the nation in rush defense. They gave up 653 total yards of offense to UCLA, so there are definitely weaknesses to exploit. This is not a classic Nebraska defense, but if their offense keeps up their pace, it doesn't really need to be.

Matchup to watch: Wisconsin's defensive ends vs. Nebraska's option game

To put it simply, the Badgers are very thin at defensive end right now. David Gilbert, Brendan Kelly, Pat Muldoon, and Tyler Dippel are all banged up in their own way, though Gilbert, and Dippel are expected to play against the Huskers. But if the injury bug strikes again, the Badgers could be down to Konrad Zagzebski andJesse Hayes at defensive end. That's a problem, because the Huskers like to mix in an option attack every once in a while, and the Badgers will need experienced ends who know not to over pursue and keep contain if they want to keep the option from burning them. If Hayes and Zagzebski are getting significant reps, look for the Huskers to attack in their general direction.

The pick: Nebraska 34 Wisconsin 21

I'll be honest, even before the start of the season I was going to pick the Badgers to lose this game. That was before they stumbled to a 3-1 record in non-conference play that probably should have been 2-2, fired Mike Markuson, and installed Joel Stave as the starting quarterback.

I originally expected this game to be a blowout, with the Huskers getting their revenge and sending the Badgers back to Madison with a 0-1 record in conference play. And while I still think the Huskers will separate themselves by the end of the game, I think the game will be closer than the final score would suggest. I can see the Badgers hanging with the Cornhuskers for three quarters or so, especially if they plan on attacking the Cornhuskers' suspect defense with Montee Ball, James White, and Melvin Gordon. But the offense is still a shell of its former self, and I don't think they have the receivers to make up for a struggling ground game if the Huskers can stuff them.

But that's not to say that they can't pull off the upset. The Badgers showed some signs of growth last week against UTEP, and there's definitely a formula for beating Nebraska. If the Badgers want to win, they'll have to control the running game by slowing down Burkhead and Abdullah. If they can do that, they'll force Martinez to throw on 3rd-and-longs, which killed him against the Badgers last season. Martinez is reputed to have a new throwing motion, but I'll believe that it's here to stay when I see him complete passes consistently against a higher-quality defense.

That's a tough challenge, but if the Badgers can keep up offensively and control how the Huskers use Martinez, they might shock the experts and pull off the upset.

The point after:

Historically, the Cornhuskers have been very good in conference openers. Last year's loss to Wisconsin was just the third time in the last 37 years that Nebraska lost their first conference game of the season.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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