Wisconsin has only lost six times in 31 games under Coach Paul Chryst. It hasn’t been easy to beat the Badgers at any point over the past two years, but this 2017 squad might be Chryst’s best in Madison. Wisconsin is averaging 40.8 points per game and giving up 13.5, one of the best scoring differentials in the country.
It’s a tall task for Nebraska this week, even at home and even at night. But the last two Husker-Badger matchups have been decided by one score each time. Are the Huskers capable of getting over the hump this time as, yet again, an underdog?
If Nebraska’s to do it, here’s probably what the Huskers will have to do based on Chryst’s six losses so far as Wisconsin’s head coach:
1. Control the Passing Game: I know, I know, you think run game when you think Wisconsin, but the Badgers have been fairly pedestrian under Chryst in that regard. Wisconsin ranked 13th in the Big Ten in 2015 at 3.82 yards per rush and eighth last year at 4.32. This year they’re up to fourth in the Big Ten at 5.05 yards per rush through five games thanks mostly to freshman running back Jonathan Taylor who is averaging 7.19 yards per carry. He’s really good.
But the bigger key to beating the Badgers since Chryst arrived has been keeping the lid on the passing game. All six teams to beat Wisconsin the past two seasons held the Badgers below their season average in yards per pass. Wisconsin has averaged 8.06 yards per pass in 25 wins under Chryst (and completed 62.9 percent of its passes), but just 6.24 (57.8 completion percentage) in six losses.
Case in point: Last week’s Northwestern game. The Wildcats did a lot of things they needed for a win in Madison. They won the turnover battle, time of possession and had more first downs than Wisconsin. Northwestern, however, also gave up passing plays of 61, 32 and 33 yards and they changed the game. Each of those plays resulted in points on the drive for the Badgers — two touchdowns, one field goal – as they averaged nearly 10 yards per pass on just 20 attempts.
If you’re betting on an area for the Blackshirts to be good in this Saturday it’s probably against the run, but the key will be how effectively Nebraska limits Wisconsin’s (often play-action) passing game. The Huskers are slightly above average in yards per pass allowed (6.7, 47th nationally), but they’ve been pretty good at preventing the big gain ranking 21st nationally in passing plays of 20-plus yards allowed (10 in five games). Anything more than the average of two per game so far this season might be too many against Wisconsin.
2. Be Patient Offensively: Running against the Badgers has been a nightmare, and that’s not a Nebraska thing, but a Wisconsin thing. Through three different coordinators, they held teams to less than 4 yards per carry in 2015 and 2016 and this year they’re under 2.5 (2.43) through four games. That doesn’t mean, however, that Nebraska should throw up its hands and ask Tanner Lee to throw it 40 times, however. (We know what happens when that happens under Mike Riley.)
Nebraska shouldn’t even be that concerned with negative plays from its offense. In both 2015 and 2016, Wisconsin averaged more tackles for loss in losses than wins, a somewhat strange quirk. The Badgers are going to get those, and while they might derail drives if Nebraska can play field position it’s probably worth it. Chryst’s Wisconsin and Riley’s Nebraska – given their shared history – are sort of mirror images offensively. The Badgers have just executed it better. But if the Huskers are to win here it will have to be a tactical fight. While a three-and-out is never ideal, if it means that the Huskers – whose biggest edge in this game might be special teams – can pin Wisconsin inside the 20 it’s probably a trade worth making for a tackle for loss or two on first and second downs.
Nebraska will have to pick up at least a couple of third downs with the odds stacked against them. Wisconsin is, as you’d expect, better defensively on third down in wins (28.3 conversion rate) than it is in losses (32.6 conversion rate), but the difference is relatively slight. Converting one or two more third downs on Saturday could be key for the Huskers. If Nebraska is around the 30 percent conversion rate on third down – a low number that’s a credit to the Badgers – it still should have a chance.
3. The Huskers Have to Win Toxic Differential: There’s nothing secret about this. Win the explosive-play battle and win the turnover margin and any team is likely to beat its opponent. That’s especially true against Wisconsin, which has given up as few 20-plus yard gains as any team in the country (tied with Washington) so far in 2017. But as you’d expect, that number goes up in Badger losses.
In 25 wins under Chryst Wisconsin has an explosive-plays percentage (20-plus gains divided by total plays) of 4.6 percent. In six losses it’s at 6.9 percent. That’s a difference of about two explosive plays per game. Can the Huskers be closer to five 20-plus yard gains against Wisconsin than two? It’s hard to predict that they will be but every such gain beyond the first two is a step in the right direction.
You can, of course, add turnovers on top of that, which is the other part of toxic differential. Four of the last six teams to beat Chryst’s Wisconsin won the turnover battle, one (Ohio State, 2016) was even and one (Penn State, 2016 Big Ten championship game) lost it. This is fairly basic stuff – have more big plays, win the turnover battle – but part of Wisconsin’s effectiveness is making an opponent win at the most elemental (and often random) level. It does as good a job as any team not named Alabama at removing the randomness from the game.
That’s Nebraska’s challenge on Saturday.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.