Iowa nearly knocked off Wisconsin in Madison on Saturday. The Hawkeyes ended up a few inches short of a game-tying two-point conversion on a quarterback draw from Nate Stanley. It was Iowa's 22nd, and final, rushing attempt of the game. That was the fewest rushing attempts in a game for the Hawkeyes since last year's 14-10 loss to Northwestern.
But it was business as usual for the Badgers. This is what Wisconsin's defense does to teams––makes the running game such mundane manual labor that most teams eventually look for a better job somewhere else.
Iowa's 22 rushing attempts came on just 51 total plays, a run percentage of 43.1%. For the season, teams are running the ball just 43.9% of the time against the Badgers, the 11th-lowest rate in the country.
Nebraska, despite a lack of consistent success, has run the ball on 58.8% of plays this season, the 25th-highest rate in the country.
That will be one big key on Saturday when the Huskers and Badgers meet in Lincoln, and I'm fascinated to see how Nebraska plans its attack. With an off week to prepare, the Huskers have had plenty of time to look for Wisconsin weaknesses.
That's good, but time doesn't make weaknesses magically appear. The Badgers' defense doesn't have many.
Wisconsin ranks in the top six nationally in overall success rate, success rate against the run and against the pass. It ranks ninth in explosive-play rate and second in explosive-pass rate. The one relative weakness here? Big runs. Teams haven't found much down-by-down success against the Badgers on any type of play, but they have hit for an explosive rushing play (10-plus yards) 13.16% of the time. That's still better than the national average, but at 54th nationally is far behind the Badgers' other efficiency/explosiveness numbers.
Relatively speaking, it is the exhaust port in the Badgers' Death Star defense.
So, back to Nebraska's run game. Do the Huskers try to run the ball against a defense most teams don't bother to try it against? After the Minnesota game, Scott Frost said Nebraska was having to "scheme" its way to find success running the football. Minus quarterback runs, of course.
The first bye week didn't really change that. Nebraska ran the ball 49 times (not including sacks) for 225 yards against Indiana. That was good for 4.6 yards per rush, below the national average, but it was the first time the Huskers had hit for more than 4 yards per rush since facing Ohio State.
Signs of life? Well, the Indiana game also included 12 rushes for 76 yards (6.3) from quarterback Luke McCaffrey and six for 21 yards from Noah Vedral. When Vedral went down in the first half, Nebraska didn't have a ton of choice in the true freshman McCaffrey's first real game. Give him the stuff he can confidently run. That "stuff" consisted mostly of plays that asked him to run confidently. That this happened to be the part of Nebraska's run game that works the best was a bonus.
But with Adrian Martinez back for the first time in a month against Purdue, the Huskers spent most of the game trying to avoid that sort of workload in the ground game for the quarterback. Removing a sack and the end-of-half scramble for 21 yards, Martinez rushed 10 times for 42 yards against the Boilermakers. Overall Nebraska rushed 34 times for 133 yards (3.9) in the loss.
That's the challenge facing Nebraska this week and, really, over all of the final three games. The Huskers want to run the ball. The Huskers haven't run the ball well, though as the run-game struggles have become more apparent, Nebraska's rushing success rate (43.0%, 50th) is better than its passing success rate (41.2%, 75th).
Few defenses this season are better at forcing the efficiency issue than Wisconsin. With two weeks to prepare, is Nebraska going to meet that challenge head-on or look for something else?
For a game with a 12.5-point line in favor of the road team, the chess match here could be interesting.
The Grab Bag
- Derek Peterson takes a detailed look at Nebraska’s third-down struggles on defense in his weekly column.
- The Nebraska women’s team picked up an overtime win over Missouri on Saturday.
- Nebraska sent out a handful of scholarship offers to junior-college prospects over the past week. Greg Smith has all of them for you here.
Today’s Song of Today