MADISON, Wis. — Two weeks ago, the sky was falling in Lincoln, Neb. Northern Illinois had beaten Nebraska 21-17, the Cornhuskers promptly fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, and coach Mike Riley appeared one more misstep from earning a permanent leave as well.
How quickly things change in the college football world.
Nebraska hasn’t suddenly solved all of its problems on the field. But after two Big Ten victories against Rutgers and Illinois, the Cornhuskers find themselves unbeaten in Big Ten play. The only other unbeaten team in the West Division is Wisconsin.
That makes the early-season game between No. 9 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) and Nebraska (3-2, 2-0) at 7 p.m. CT Saturday in Lincoln of vital importance for both teams in the division race. The Freedom Trophy will be on the line in the teams’ budding rivalry. But so much more is at stake.
For Riley, it is perhaps the most important game of his three-year tenure at Nebraska. And for Wisconsin, it is an opportunity to establish itself as the dominant West Division team again this season on its quest for a Big Ten title and potential College Football Playoff appearance.
“Whenever you are facing an undefeated team in the West, getting that victory on them, it’s kind of like gaining two games because not only do they have a loss, but you also have the head-to-head win,” Wisconsin outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “It’s definitely a big thing to get that W under your belt, and obviously it’s a trophy game.
“All those games are always going to be difficult, and we want to keep all three trophies in our locker room. That’s part of our goals. Everyone’s just got to come out with their heads on fire and go play the kind of football we’re used to.”
Nebraska opened the season 1-2, with losses against Oregon and NIU and a closer-than-expected victory in its opener against Arkansas State. Rutgers and Illinois rank 13th and 14th, respectively, in the Big Ten in scoring offense, so the Cornhuskers have plenty to prove.
But the fact that Nebraska has not played particularly consistent football does not concern Wisconsin’s players. Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said he saw the score of Nebraska’s loss to Northern Illinois and hardly thought much of it. He has been involved in two close games against Nebraska the last two seasons and understands how well the Cornhuskers are capable of playing.
“They could have gotten blown out in all four games to start this year,” Deiter said. “But when they play us, they’re going to give us their best, and I know they’re a good team. There’s nothing to look into there from our standpoint. We’ll watch it, we’ll see what happened. Maybe we can learn something from it.
“But I think the Nebraska-Wisconsin game, no matter what both teams have done up to that point, it’s going to be a good game and they’re going to play us their best.”
Last season, Nebraska entered Camp Randall Stadium undefeated and ranked No. 7 in the country. Wisconsin escaped with a 23-17 overtime victory to lift the Badgers on to the West title.
When Wisconsin last visited Nebraska, in 2015, the Cornhuskers were 2-3 and sputtering through only their second losing season since 1961. Yet Nebraska nearly pulled off the upset. It took a 46-yard field goal from Badgers kicker Rafael Gaglianone with 4 seconds remaining to help Wisconsin steal a 23-21 victory.
That experience has prepared Wisconsin’s players for what they will face on Saturday. Nebraska has won 20 consecutive night games at Memorial Stadium, which includes a victory against Wisconsin in 2012.
“Obviously Lincoln, Nebraska, is going to be one of the hardest places to play in the entire nation,” Dooley said. “They’re filled up half an hour before the game even starts. It’s sold out every single game. Everyone knows that. And then they’re going to be loud on every single snap of offense.”
Where Nebraska could have an advantage is in its ability to create explosive plays. Badgers coach Paul Chryst said Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee would test Wisconsin’s defense in a way it hasn’t experienced yet because of his ability to throw. Linebacker T.J. Edwards said Nebraska’s speed at receiver was “some of the best in the Big Ten.”
Lee threw 9 interceptions over 3 games against Oregon, Northern Illinois and Rutgers. But in Nebraska’s 28-6 victory against Illinois, Lee threw for 246 yards with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He is averaging 34 passes per game, which is the most among Big Ten quarterbacks. Six Nebraska players have at least 8 catches this season. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has only two players (Troy Fumagalli and Quintez Cephus) with at least 8 catches.
Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan has 26 catches for 395 yards with 4 touchdown receptions. De’Mornay Pierson-El has 21 catches for 304 yards with 4 touchdowns.
Lee is not as mobile as former Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., and Wisconsin’s defense hopes to take advantage of Lee’s willingness to stand in the pocket. Last week, Wisconsin recorded its highest sack total in 16 years when it registered 8 sacks against Northwestern.
“They have a similar offense to what we run here,” Dooley said. “I think as a defense, that’s kind of good for us because we see it every day, and we’ve seen it for the last seven months or so. Scheme-wise, we’ll be able to be well prepared for the game.”
The Badgers understand they’ll need to be prepared, given how much this game can change the division’s balance of power.
“We have to win it to be West Division champions,” Edwards said.
The post First place in Big Ten West at stake in Wisconsin-Nebraska showdown appeared first on Land of 10.
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