On Nebraska and Purdue
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Few Out-Execute Wisconsin, So How About Outshoot the Badgers?

October 05, 2018

What is the way to beat Wisconsin? Asking for a friend.

A friend who has connections, the kind of guy who can get this message to Nebraska, which is 1-6 against the Badgers since joining the Big Ten, losers of five straight in the series and about a 17-point underdog headed to Madison for Saturday’s primetime matchup.

If you know it’s time to speak up because many have tried and few have succeeded. Eight have succeeded, to be exact, since Paul Chryst took over at his alma mater. That’s against 37 wins. Plenty of teams have struggled against the Badgers this decade, just particularly so Nebraska.

While we can draw parallels between Alvarez-era Wisconsin and Devaney/Osborne-era Nebraska, the contemporary comparison is of two programs on opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Huskers are volatile, unable to get out of their own way at multiple, maddening points over the entire Big Ten span. The Badgers are stable. Stable across multiple coaches.

Stability is a huge an advantage in this padded-up, fast-paced game of extremely physical risk management. That is perhaps not the sexiest description of football, but Wisconsin has proven it delivers alluring results. The Badgers are masters at it.

So how, exactly, is Nebraska (0-4) supposed to get this done against Wisconsin (3-1)? Most teams aren’t going to out-efficiency the Badgers. Wisconsin’s just better at running its offense, staying on schedule and staying on the field. Let Chryst and crew get an early lead and the pressure only increases.

And Wisconsin usually gets a lead. Since Chryst took over, four-out-of-five offensive plays for the Badgers have been run with Wisconsin leading. This isn’t a program that crushes dreams. Rather it slowly squeezes thoughts of winning out of opponents the way one presses water from a block of tofu –– with weight and time.

What’s the best way to fight that off? I’m not sure there is a best way, but turnovers would help. There’s only so much any team can control there, however. A huge field-position edge might do it, though that has been beyond Nebraska to this point in 2018. The most realistic way, which is good deal different than “easy,” is to win the big-play battle.

I wrote much the same thing a year ago, but there are a few differences this time around. Maybe key differences.

One, big plays are a bigger part of the Huskers’ DNA now. Nebraska has hit for an explosive play (runs of 10-plus, passes of 15-plus) on 18.1 percent of its plays this season. That ranks 25th nationally and is just a half-step behind Wisconsin (18.3%) and Ohio State (18.4%). Nebraska is the only team in the top 25 in that category that is winless. Last year’s offense ranked 71st at 14.6 percent.

Two, Wisconsin’s not quite as good at preventing those plays as it was a year ago. The Badgers gave up an explosive play on just 10.2 percent of plays a year ago, tied for third nationally. This year Wisconsin is merely average at 13.9 percent (64th). The bigger deal than frequency, however, might be how big those big plays are going. The Badgers have already given up five plays of 40 yards or more after allowing 10 in 2017. BYU hit Wisconsin with two such gains on the ground in its 24-21 win, equaling the Badgers’ total for 40-yard rushes allowed all of last season.

Three, with Wisconsin’s defense showing a few (very small) cracks compared to previous years, this might be a good time for Nebraska to be coming off its most successful stretch of offensive football of the season. That would be the Huskers’ three straight touchdown drives in the second half against Purdue. Those three drives covered 197 yards in 16 plays (12.3 ypp). The Huskers success rate on those 16 plays was 81.3 percent. It was, finally, the offense fans had been hoping to see all season, one that had success on the opening play and turned it up from there. Who knows if that’s something Nebraska can carry over to a road game against a top-25 opponent, but at least the Huskers have seen how it can look at this point. Those three drives also included two explosive plays each, a big part of the reason they looked so good.

Four, Wisconsin hasn't lost the big-play battle in a game yet this season. Nebraska has only lost it to Michigan and lightning. It is the category where these two offense are relative equals.

As far as strategy goes, win the big-play battle isn’t much of one. It’s akin to telling a basketball team to “get hot from 3.” Sure, great, but how? What if that doesn’t happen?

And this is ultimately what makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin. The Badgers’ level of execution is so high that opponents are given the choice of either matching it or seeking less reliable and desirable paths to victory.

Reminds me of another team I used to know.

That’s not this version of scarlet-and cream-yet. But at 0-4, these Huskers don’t have the luxury of being picky.

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