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December 1, 2012

Match-up watch: Wisconsin

NU Run Offense vs. Wisconsin Run Defense
Nebraska's running game got a shot in the arm with the return of Rex Burkhead last week. The senior immediately returned to his blue-collar ways, rushing 16 times in the second half and scoring the Huskers' lone touchdown. The Huskers wouldn't say whether Burkhead or Ameer Abdullah will start, but it's safe to say Nebraska is in good hands either way.

Wisconsin will get a boost as linebacker Chris Borland returns after missing a few games with injury. The Badgers' linebacking corps was still strong in Borland's absence because of Mike Taylor, who finished second in the Big Ten with 115 tackles. The only better conference team with a better rushing defense was Michigan State, as UW held opponents to 111.3 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry.

But the Badgers were powerless to stop the NU running game the first time these two met earlier this season. The Huskers averaged 5.6 yards per rush en route to gaining 259 yards on the ground, including 191 in the second half. Taylor Martinez was particularly dominant, picking up 107 yards rushing.


NU Pass Offense vs. Wisconsin Pass Defense
The Nebraska passing game was almost nonexistent last week, but Martinez and company were battling gale-force winds. This contest will be indoors, so expect the Huskers to return to their usual prominence through the air. Martinez's tremendous junior season was partially sparked by a strong second half against Wisconsin.

The Badgers haven't given up a lot of yards against the pass, but they have only six interceptions on the season. They typically get decent pressure on the quarterback and have 25 sacks, led by Borland with 4.5 Martinez was 17 for 29 passing for 181 yards and a pair of scores in the Sept. 29 showdown.

The Huskers have gotten breakout performances from several receivers on the team, most notably Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa. But this could be the type of game tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton have a big impact on. Cotton is coming off one of his best games of the season after leading the Huskers in catches and yards against Iowa.

Edge: Nebraska

Wisconsin Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Montee Ball became the NCAA's all-time leader in touchdowns last week and while he hasn't been quite as dominant as last season, he has still rushed for 1,528 yards and 18 touchdowns. He comes into the league title game on a hot streak with a combined 500 rushing yards in the past three games against Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State.

The Nebraska defense is coming off of one of its best performances of the season. The Badgers' ground game is much stronger than Iowa's and the Huskers will be missing Baker Steinkuhler this week, but the Huskers have shut down traditional running offenses all year. Will Compton and Sean Fisher have had standout seasons and Alonzo Whaley is coming off his best game of his career with 11 tackles and a pick.

Ricky Wagner and Travis Frederick were both all-conference picks by the coaches this week, but the UW line didn't open many holes the last time these teams faced off. The Badgers finished with 56 yards on 1.9 yards per carry in that game.


Wisconsin Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
The Huskers saw two Badger quarterbacks last time around, but neither of them will start today. Instead Wisconsin has handed the job to Curt Phillips, a fifth-year senior who is somewhat mobile, but his arm won't keep NU secondary coach Terry Joseph awake at night. Phillips is completing just 52.6 percent of his passes for 386 yards in three starts.

On the other side of the ball, no secondary has been stingier than Nebraska's. No NU opponent has even completed half of his passes during its current six-game winning streak. Ciante Evans was snubbed for the all-Big Ten teams but Bo Pelini called him the best cornerback in the conference. He'll team with a strong group of cornerbacks and P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford at safety to contain Phillips.

Wisconsin wideout Jared Abbrederis had 142 yards receiving the last time these teams faced off but has just 248 yards in his last six games. With Eric Martin breathing down Phillips' neck, the Badgers aren't likely to have a lot of time to throw. Barring a breakout performance from Phillips, this match-up won't decide the game.


Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
The Badgers aren't anything special in the return game, although Abbrederis has proven to be dangerous as a punt returner in the past. Kyle French is a fairly accurate kicker but doesn't have a strong leg. Three of his five missed fields goals this year have come from more than 40 yards.

Though Brett Maher's punting is still a bit skittish, his kicking is no longer a concern. He's made 10 of 11 field goals in the past six games and his two kicks in last week's windstorm may have been his best of the season.

Unfortunately for Nebraska, returns remain a major concern. The kickoff squad rarely generates any yardage, but at least it doesn't turn the ball over. Abdullah muffed another punt last week, continuing a disturbing season-long trend for the Huskers.

Edge: EVEN

Nebraska Will Win If:

It doesn't shoot itself in the foot with turnovers. A series of early fumbles gave Wisconsin the early lead against Nebraska the first time around and forced the Huskers to conduct a second-half comeback. Nebraska must made the Badgers prove they can move the ball against the Blackshirts.

Wisconsin Will Win If:

Ball looks more like the 2011 version of himself than he has all season. He was invisible against Nebraska in the Sept. game and Wisconsin simply can't win without production from its senior star.


This seems obvious, but it has to be Martinez. When he plays well, Nebraska's offense is nearly impossible to contain, particularly when he's a big part of the ground game. Not many teams have been able to throw him off his game this season.

Prediction: Nebraska 31, Wisconsin 24

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