Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Coach: Paul Chryst (37-8, fourth season)
Record: 3-1 (1-0 Big Ten)
Rankings: 16th (AP); 12th (Coaches)
Offensive averages / national rank
Defensive averages / national rank
Special-teams averages / national rank
Why you may need Rolaids
1. Wisconsin’s defense had to replace seven starters from last season. And the Badgers are still really, really good. The fact that Jim Leonhard’s crew ranks “just” 50th in the country in rushing yards allowed — the Badgers have given up an average of 135 yards on the ground per game — is far more surprising than the unit ranking in the top 10 nationally in points allowed, the top 20 in total yards allowed and the top 25 in passing yards allowed. If Lincoln native and Wisconsin freshman defensive lineman Bryson Williams gets into the backfield and disrupts a few plays, that only figures to add insult to injury.
2. The Badgers’ backfield is among the best in the Big Ten. Sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 157 and is fifth in total rushing yards at 628 while averaging more than 6 yards per carry. He was a revelation who turned into a Heisman candidate as a freshman, including a 249-yard performance against Nebraska, and has only continued that this season. And while junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook has often been a target of criticism, he’s playing the best football of his career: He’s a top-25 quarterback nationally in pass efficiency who is completing two-thirds of his passes.
3. Wisconsin does what Nebraska doesn’t — play with discipline. The Badgers have committed 16 fewer penalties than the Huskers through the same number of games. They are 15th in the country in turnover margin. Nebraska is 127th. Husker coaches all week have spoken highly of Wisconsin’s “championship attitude” and “championship discipline.” You have to think Wisconsin’s coaches are driving home that point this week: play your own game and wait for Nebraska to beat itself.
Why you might chill
1. Nebraska had no business being in last year’s matchup between the teams in Lincoln, yet there the Huskers were, tied early in the third quarter, after Aaron Williams took back a Hornibrook interception for a touchdown. Devine Ozigbo rushed for 112 yards against the nation’s No. 4 overall defense and the Huskers nearly reached 400 total yards. Small victories? Sure, especially since Wisconsin ran the ball on 30 of its last 32 plays of the game in a 38-17 win. But, there are at least some positives the Huskers can point to as the game nears.
2. It seems like forever ago, but the last time Nebraska visited Camp Randall Stadium, the Huskers took Wisconsin to overtime before falling. That, of course, came when Nebraska was ranked seventh in the country and started the downward spiral from which the Huskers are still trying to climb. And this season has already seen Wisconsin show some vulnerability, however small it may be, in playing at home. Unranked BYU came into Madison three weeks ago and handed the Badgers their first nonconference home loss since 2003.
3. Look, we all know things don’t look great for Nebraska in this game. It could get ugly. It could turn into another mistake-filled, turnover-heavy mismatch against one of the Big Ten’s powers. So if you’re making the seven-hour drive to the game, here’s what you can do to make yourself feel better: Stop at New Glarus on the way back and go to New Glarus Brewing. It’s basically right on the way, just a few miles off Highway 69, and offers some of the best brew in the country. You can only get it in Wisconsin, so grab a couple cases so you can have something to enjoy when you get home.
By the numbers
The point differential between Wisconsin and Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten. Dating back to that 48-17 blowout in Madison in 2011, the Badgers are outscoring the Huskers by nearly 19 points per game.
Wisconsin’s winning percentage against Big Ten West opponents since 2014. The Badgers are 22-3 against their divisional brethren since the league went to its current divisional alignment in 2014.
Wisconsin is honoring its 1993 team Saturday night. That squad won 10 games, went to Wisconsin’s first Rose Bowl since 1963, won it for the first time in program history, and set the table for 25 years of sustained success. The Badgers have won nearly 72 percent of their games since that season.
Jason Galloway covers Wisconsin football for the Wisconsin State Journal.
How important was the bye week for Wisconsin coming off back-to-back games against physical opponents?
I think the bye was well-positioned for a couple of reasons, one being because, like you mentioned, those games against BYU and Iowa were both physical. A couple key players for Wisconsin — outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and tight end Zander Neuville — needed another week to get healthier. Maybe more than anything, though, the Badgers needed to regroup. They simply haven’t lived up to the preseason hype that led to their No. 4 ranking coming into the year. That Iowa win may have saved their season, but there were still plenty of glaring issues in that game for a team with such lofty goals. After a loss that likely crushed their hopes at the College Football Playoff and a conference opener with so much on the line as far as the Big Ten West, I think Wisconsin will benefit from having a week to collect itself before the rest of conference play.
Michigan looms next week. The coaches and players are certainly saying the right things, but is there any concern of the Badgers looking past an 0-4 Nebraska team?
That certainly could be a concern, as it may have been in the BYU game with Iowa on the schedule the following week. I don’t anticipate it playing a factor, though. I think that BYU loss served as a reality check for this team, and at this point they know they don’t have much margin for error. A trophy — albeit one that’s only a few years old — is also on the line, giving Wisconsin a little more incentive to stay in the moment.
How have seven new defensive starters settled into their roles, and is that still an ongoing process?
It turns out it’s not so easy to plug in seven new starters and maintain the standard of defense the Badgers have become accustomed to the past few years. The pass rush hasn’t been nearly as effective, and the freshman defensive linemen aren’t on the level of last year’s seniors at that position. Mistakes in the secondary are more common as well with three new starters in the back end. The Badgers surrendered 7.48 yards per play against Iowa, the most they’ve given up since their 2015 opener against Alabama. Give them credit for making some key red-zone stops that allowed them to win that game, but Wisconsin’s defense isn’t one of the country’s best anymore.
This will be the first spread team Wisconsin has faced since Week 1. Certainly the bye week helps in preparation, but how much of a change is that for Wisconsin’s defense as it goes through preparations?
I think it’s always a challenge when facing an unfamiliar style of offense. The Badgers can try to replicate it in practice, but their scout-team players won’t be able to show quite the same look as the real thing on Saturday. Wisconsin fared well against Western Kentucky in that Week 1 matchup, but the Cornhuskers will obviously bring more talent to Camp Randall this week.
How good has Alex Hornibrook been this season? Have you seen a guy that has made progress over last season?
Hornibrook’s efficiency is up from last year, as he’s completing 66.7 percent of his passes and threw just two interceptions in his first four games. His pick against BYU was a really poor decision, though, and it allowed the Cougars to take a 21-14 lead in the third quarter and turn the game in their favor. He put together a near-flawless second half against Iowa, including five straight completions on Wisconsin’s go-ahead, 88-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes. The Badgers would like to see their passing game create more explosive plays going forward, but Hornibrook’s had somewhat of a quietly good season thus far.