As we do each week, the Hail Varsity staff sat down with a former Division I football coach to take a closer look at Nebraska and its upcoming opponent. With the wind such a factor in Iowa City, and a head-to-head match-up to watch again, we spent most of the time focused on Wisconsin, taking a look at the Badgers’ last game against Penn State as well as the previous meeting with Nebraska.
On to the breakdown…
The real question heading into Saturday was how much of an outlier, if at all, was Nebraska’s first game against Wisconsin? The Huskers put up 440 yards of total offense the first time out. No other team has put up more than 363 yards against the Badgers’ defense this season.
Watching that game again, it was difficult to find too many instances of unearned or “lucky” gains so I asked offensive coordinator Tim Beck for his assessment of the offense in that game.
“I thought we played well (but) we were sloppy and nervous early,” he said. “I think our guys had looked forward to that game for a long time. Being at home, at night, with the new uniforms, I think all that played into it.
“We dug ourselves a big hole and then we calmed down and just started playing. There were a lot of good things. Taylor didn’t play great early but then came on and played well for us later in the game.”
The 440 yards of offense Nebraska had can be boiled down even further. Through one quarter, where the Huskers fumbled on the first two drives, Nebraska had just 44 yards meaning the Huskers gained nearly 400 over the final three quarters. Martinez completed 58.6-percent of his passes which is about 5-percent worse than his season long average, but went 13-for-19 over the second and third quarters. On the ground, the Huskers were slightly better than normal, averaging 5.63 yards per carry against the Badgers versus a 5.35 average for the year as a whole.
Can Nebraska replicate that performance? Wisconsin will have three players back on defense who didn’t play in the first game. Safety Shelton Johnson is a legitimate contributor, ranking seventh on the team in tackles. Defensive linemen Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon will give the Badgers a few more options up front.
But our coach had some questions about Wisconsin’s scheme against Nebraska. Based on the Penn State film, Wisconsin will probably continue to play two-deep, combo coverages against Nebraska’s wide receivers with some quarters mixed in. Nebraska stacked its wide receivers a lot against Wisconsin, and the Badgers never adjusted to it. Martinez could’ve thrown 7-yard outs all game based on the way Wisconsin lined up.
You assume they saw that on film and will be ready for it, but it’s odd that the coaches didn’t make any in-game adjustments there. Wisconsin’s defense is better but you get the sense from conversations with the Nebraska staff early this week that they’re pretty confident in how the Huskers’ offense matches up with the Badgers defense.
Nebraska may not gain 440 yards again, but, based on what we saw, the Huskers aren’t likely to be totally stopped either.
Turnovers are part of the game and the points off those turnovers count just the same, but when you’re trying to determine the strength of a pair of teams it’s tough to overlook the fact that Wisconsin had two touchdown drives that started inside the Huskers’ 25-yard line due to fumbles. Here’s an example.
Nebraska held Wisconsin to just 295 yards in the game, the Badgers’ second-lowest output in Big Ten play behind the 190 yards Michigan State allowed. That yardage total equates to 10.93 yards per point, which is very good for an offense. Take out the two short field touchdowns, however, and that number nearly doubles to 19.69 yards per point. That’s a very good number for the defense. (For comparison’s sake, no Nebraska offense of the past 20 years has averaged more than 14.53 yards per point. More on that here.)
Nebraska also gave up a pair of big passing plays to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. The first, a 54-yard completion off of play action, set up Wisconsin’s first touchdown. One quarter later, Abbrederis hauls in a 29-yard touchdown catch over corner back Andrew Green. On both plays, representing 28-percent of Wisconsin’s total offense on the night, Nebraska had defenders in place. Were they 50-50 balls? Abbrederis deserves more than credit than that but the Huskers defended those plays relatively well.
I asked secondary coach Terry Joseph if he felt Nebraska’s progress in the secondary — Nebraska now leads the nation in pass defense — led him to believe the Huskers might be better equipped to handle Wisconsin’s passing game this time around.
“Yes, and even though they caught some balls on us, we were in position but we didn’t finish,” Joseph said. “That was the biggest thing as a coach that left me disappointed in that game. It wasn’t schematics, it wasn’t match-ups, we didn’t finish. We had a guy exactly where we thought he was going to be, we just didn’t make the play.
“As the season went (on), we matured a lot more and I think we’re finishing a lot more. You’re excited as a coach to go back out there and really see how much your guys have progressed.”
The bigger question, of course, is how Nebraska handles Wisconsin’s run game. The Huskers did extraordinarily well against Wisconsin, holding the Badgers to 56 yards (1.37 yards per carry) on the ground. Only Idaho State (31 yards and hardly a basis for comparison) had fewer.
On the other side, Wisconsin has struggled to run in other games this season. Oregon State held Wisconsin to 35 yards early in the season and Michigan State stopped the Badgers for only 19 yards at the end of October when Wisconsin lost its starting quarterback. (Strangely, Nebraska’s best rushing game in Big Ten play — 313 yards — came against the Spartans.) Its doubtful Nebraska will limit Wisconsin in the running game the way the Huskers did in September — Montee Ball simply looks better now than he was then on tape — but our coach says you can expect Nebraska to sell out against the run with eight and even nine people in the box like it did in the first game.
The difference this time is two-fold: 1) Nebraska is likely better against the pass right now, and 2) Wisconsin’s quarterback — Curt Phillips (52.6-percent) — isn’t as strong a thrower as Joel Stave (59.3-percent) was. If Nebraska can hold up on first and second down, the Huskers look poised to have some success in passing situations.
Watching that first Wisconsin-Nebraska game again really illustrates how well the Huskers played. Defensively, it probably ranks as the best performance of 2012 when you factor in the strength of the opponent. Offensively, it shows, yet again, how good this offense can be when it isn’t hurting itself.