"Stopping the run is of utmost importance right now," Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said on Tuesday.
This being Wisconsin week, that's not a surprising thing to hear. It feels like any coach of any team prepping to face the Badgers since, oh, about 1990 could have said it.
But it wasn't that true a year ago. That was the strange thing about Wisconsin's 2018. Expectations for the Badgers were sky-high. The opened the season at No. 4 in the preseason AP poll and even received one first-place vote. Wisconsin finished 8-5 and unranked.
This wasn't the fault of the run game, however. BYU held Wisconsin to a season-low 4.74 yards per carry in its September win, which is still pretty good. After that the Badgers rushed for 6.31 against Michigan, 5.16 against Northwestern, 5.65 against Penn State and 5.48 against Minnesota. The Badgers' rushing success rate in those games was never lower than 48%. Those were all losses. Wisconsin ran on everyone last year, win or lose.
Things are different this season. For one, Wisconsin's better at 7-2 and 14th in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. It's also more Wisconsin-like. The run game isn't quite what it was––6.22 yards per carry in 2018, 5.04 now––but it's still strong and now it's paired with another lock-down defense that's allowing fewer than 13 points per game. In short, playing Wisconsin isn't much fun.
Does stopping the run help? Well, yeah, of course. Illinois held the Badgers to 3.63 yards per carry (30.7% rushing success rate) in an upset that has turned the Illini's season around. Ohio State kept Wisconsin to 2.44 yards per carry (37.9% rushing success rate) in its 38-7 win. Northwestern was the only other team to keep Wisconsin under 4 yards per rush this season, but the Wildcats lost the turnover margin by one and lost the game 24-15.
That's the maddening thing about this team from Madison; it is back to reducing this game down to its simplest elements. Run the ball, play good defense, take care of the ball. Since the start of the 2018 season (22 games) the Badgers are 9-0 when winning the turnover battle and 4-1 in games when the turnover margin is even. Winning the turnover battle against the Badgers has almost been a prerequisite for winning the game; Wisconsin is 2-6 since 2018 when losing the turnover battle. The only two teams to win the turnover battle and lose the game were a hapless 2018 Rutgers team and Iowa last week, which came up two points short.
Nebraska's defense has struggled on both fronts in Big Ten play. The Huskers led the Big Ten with nine takeaways in nonconference play. The Blackshirts have five in six Big Ten games, second-worst in the conference. Nebraska's rush defense allowed 2.18 yards per carry in nonconference play. Really good, even against weaker competition, but only good for sixth in this run-defense league. The Huskers would happily take sixth now, however. In Big Ten games Nebraska is allowing 5.31 yards per rush, the worst mark in the league.
That should provide a pretty clear picture of just how big the challenge will be for Nebraska defensively on Saturday. It will have to succeed in some areas it hasn't been strong in against an opponent that is. That's how Barry Alvarez built it and Wisconsin's been able to maintain that for the most part through multiple coaches.
Last spring, Alvarez was invited to speak at LSU's coaches clinic. The Wisconsin AD and former CFP selection committee member watched the Tigers practice and observed the type of athletes LSU had walking through its facilities. Alvarez's take? That LSU was one of the handful of teams that start each season with everything they need to win it all he told Chris Schmidt of Hail Varsity Radio on Tuesday.
"You have enough talent to win," Alvarez said he told LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. "It's about doing all the small things, having the right leadership, etc."
LSU, fresh off a road win at Alabama, was the new No. 1 in the CFP rankings on Tuesday night. If not for the surprise loss to Illinois, the Badgers would still be in that hunt.
But it’s clear Wisconsin is back to being Wisconsin again. It’s “doing all the small things,” which is still the Huskers’ biggest struggle entering Saturday.
The Grab Bag
- Nice story from Derek Peterson on Garrett Nelson, one of two newly-minted Blackshirts. (Premium)
- Lauren West looks at how setter training has evolved since she played the position for the Huskers.
- The quest for recruits that love football.
Today’s Song of Today