The beauty of big games is that there is very little need for build up. Everyone on either side knows what this one means. If Nebraska wins, it puts Wisconsin’s hopes of a division title on life support and the Huskers continue to control their own destiny. If Wisconsin wins, it probably becomes the division favorite even though the Badgers would still need another Nebraska loss in Big Ten play.
According to ESPN’s FPI, Wisconsin already is the favorite to win the West. That system, which is basing its projections on win probabilities in remaining games, gives the Badgers an 8.9-percent chance to win the Big Ten, while Nebraska is given a 5.3-percent chance. The reason is simple enough. The Badgers’ remaining strength of schedule rank is 58th nationally. The Huskers’ is 16th. And FPI gives Wisconsin an almost 70-percent chance to win on Saturday.
THE LINE: Wisconsin opened as about a 7-point favorite and now you’ll see the line up around 8.5 or 9 points. That doesn’t surprise me. What does, at least a little bit, is that The Prediction Tracker average is almost right in line with that at Wisconsin -8.3. I thought it might be closer to 6 or so, but of the 50-some predictions posted there now, none of them are projecting a Nebraska win.
THE RANKINGS: Sagarin sees the greatest difference between the Badgers and Huskers at this point. Everything else is pretty in line with where things have been the past few weeks. Nebraska’s closer-than-expected win over Purdue dropped the Huskers in FEI and over at The Power Rank, but the other power rankings held pretty steady.
Let’s take a look at six statistical categories that should be key if Nebraska is to swing some of those odds in its favor this weekend.
1. Trench Warfare
Let’s go back to 2015 for a moment. Wisconsin finished last season with the fourth-ranked total defense and run defense based on yards per play. Ten of the Badgers’ 13 opponents a year ago were held to 3.6 yards per carry or less. Alabama tore through Wisconsin in the opener for an average of 6.43 yards on 37 attempts. Illinois managed 4.23 yards per carry, but only bothered to run the ball 13 times. Then there was Nebraska. The Huskers ran it 37 times for 196 yards (5.3 ypc). Granted, 55 of those yards came on one run via stopping the run, but there may be some value in Nebraska giving it a go again even if everything says the Huskers won’t move it consistently via the ground.
But that depends on how you define “consistent.” Wisconsin hasn’t given up many big running plays, but it is sort of surprisingly average when it comes to success rate against the run. When teams run against the Badgers, they are staying on schedule 41.7 percent of the time, which ranks 64th nationally. That number has taken a big jump up over the last three games, too. Now, Michigan and Ohio State are pretty darn good, but Iowa’s rushing success rate was also surprisingly high.
Despite struggles in the last two games, Nebraska has been pretty strong in this category overall with a 46.8 percent success rate on runs, which ranks 34th nationally. It’s possible that number is just residue from when Nebraska had a healthier offensive line and won’t be reached regularly from here on out, but if the Huskers are to win this one I think they need to get close. What would that look like? Probably not pretty. A lot of the time, it might look like running into a wall and then deciding to do it again. Then again. Then again.
But if Nebraska were to be in the neighborhood of 3.6 yards per carry against Wisconsin – the Huskers are averaging 4.6 right now – I think that might be enough to allow this offense to operate freely. Remember the famous Foster Farms Bowl of 2015? Half of the Huskers’ runs that night went for four yards or less. Could see something similar on Saturday.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s yards per carry (Number to hit: 3.6)
2. It’s the Points, Dummy
Like Mike Riley, I’m starting to feel like a broken record, but we’re going to highlight finishing drives again. Yes, it always matters because we’re dealing with actual points, but this is a category where the Huskers have an edge.
Right now, Nebraska’s offense is about average at 4.98 points per trip inside the 40. Wisconsin’s offense is terrible (115th nationally) at 3.95. Both defenses, however, rank in the top 15 in this category, with a slight edge to the Badgers.
Here’s why this is big: Assuming an average number of trips inside the 40 (six) for each team, the range of points you might expect Nebraska to score would be between 29.9 and 19.4. Wisconsin’s range is tighter, 23.7 to 20.6 points.
That’s very much a test-tube scenario. Football games never play out exactly to form, but I don’t think there’s a bigger edge in statistical tendencies for Nebraska than this one. It’s the Huskers’ job to not let this category flip and that probably means at least two empty trips inside the 40 for Wisconsin. Missed field goal, takeaway, untimely penalty, anything works.
Stat to Watch: Wisconsin’s points per trip inside the 40 (Number to hit: <4.0)
3. Keep Tommy Clean-ish
As Dylan Utter noted this week, Tommy Armstrong Jr. does a pretty good job of keeping himself clean. His patented reverse pivot out of pressure may be panic inducing for Husker nation, but it has worked pretty well so far this year. That plus an offensive line that has been pretty solid in pass protection for the most part gives the Huskers an adjusted sack rate that currently ranks ninth in the country. Wisconsin is better than most teams at heating up quarterbacks, however, so how do the Huskers slow down the Badgers’ pass rush?
Some success in the run game would be the biggest thing. That would open up the Huskers’ play-action game, which is a key part of the attack. There’s also the screen game, though given the familiarity Paul Chryst has with this staff that feels like it could be mitigated to a slight extent. Nebraska will still run them, of course, but I’ll be surprised if many of them really break big.
Maybe the easiest way to look at this one is the one people have been pointing to since Saturday: stay on schedule. Wisconsin, with an overall defensive success rate of 38.6 percent (37th), is pretty good at preventing that. Meanwhile Nebraska’s offense is trending in the wrong direction. The Huskers’ season-long success rate is 46 percent (28th), but the last two games have been at 37 percent. Big plays from Nebraska’s receivers bailed the offense out a bit in those games, but this ain’t Indiana or Purdue. Making tough catches (and throws for that matter) might matter more because the Badgers just don’t give up many big gains. Whatever it takes to stay ahead of chains.
To me, that seems like the key to keeping the pressure off Armstrong. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes when that’s the case, just 45.5 percent when there is pressure according to Pro Football Focus. If Nebraska can’t do that, Saturday might look like the worst stretches of the Indiana game times about five. The Armstrong that is visibly frustrated by his lack of time to pass is not the Armstrong Nebraska fans want to see.
Stat to Watch: Nebraska’s success rate (Number to hit: 41 percent)
3 More to Monitor
Defensive Field Position: I think Nebraska’s defense is going to have a large say in which team wins this game and I expect it to play pretty well, but, as my basketball coach used to say, it’s better to stay out of trouble than get out of trouble. Nebraska ranks 27th nationally in defensive field position this season and it has generally needed those extra yards. A week ago, the Huskers played perhaps the best field-position game I can remember with Purdue starting no drive closer than its own 29-yard line. Do something close to that again and the Huskers will be asking a lot out of a Wisconsin offense that is lacking some explosiveness.
The Badgers’ Completion Percentage: Chryst said that Wisconsin will continue to shuffle its two quarterbacks in and out this week. Who is taking the snaps might matter less, however, than how many throws they’re hitting. The Badgers have completed at least 60 percent of their passes in each of their wins this season. Ohio State eked out a win by holding Wisconsin to 57 percent. Michigan controlled its game against the Badgers by holding them to 36 percent. Nebraska’s defense isn’t going to do that, it’s not really built to do that, but anything sub-60 would be a win for the Blackshirts on Saturday.
More Picks: Defensively, Nebraska’s interception rate remains on the lucky side of the ledger. The Huskers have intercepted 32.5 percent of their total passes defended, while a rate closer to 22 percent is normal, but, hey, keep defying the odds if you can. Wisconsin managed to avoid any interceptions last week against Iowa, but has thrown at least one in five of its other six games this season. A 1-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio would be a good mark to hit considering that Wisconsin has thrown multiple touchdown passes in just one game (Akron) thus far. Get multiple interceptions and the Huskers are probably in business.
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.