Every day this week the Huskers walked by the year 2012 scribbled on a whiteboard. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph wrote that. It’s the last time Nebraska beat Wisconsin. A 41-yard fourth-quarter field goal from Brett Maher broke the deadlock that day. What followed has been a decade of Badger domination.
But this year’s meeting will look different than most in the last 10 years. Both teams will be led by interim head coaches — Mickey Joseph took over at Nebraska on September 11 and Jim Leonhard inherited the interim coach role at Wisconsin on October 2 when the program parted ways with Paul Chryst. Joseph is 2-5 at Nebraska. Leonard is 3-2 as interim head coach at Wisconsin, including a 24-10 loss to Iowa last week.
The Badgers are a win from bowl eligibility. The Huskers could play spoiler on those dreams, having their postseason aspirations derailed already. But it won’t be easy.
Despite some frustrating results, Wisconsin’s defense remains formidable.
“I think they’re a solid defense, they’re a top 20 defense in some categories,” Joseph said on Thursday. “They’re a team that don’t make mistakes, they’re really good inside with their interior guys and No. 19 (linebacker Nick Herbig) is a really good pass rusher and a really good football player. I think they have a solid defense. We have to execute to move the ball on these people.”
Wisconsin currently ranks No. 20 in the country in stop rate. They hold teams scoreless on 71.8% of defensive drives and limit opponents to 1.73 points per drive. The Badgers are tenth in the country by holding opponents to 0 or negative yardage on 18.9% of drives.
The Badgers defense comes off a loss where Iowa’s offense managed just 146 yards. They held Iowa to 52 yards rushing, including the -41 rushing yards from quarterback Spencer Petras. His day in the air was marginally better, 14-for-23 for 94 yards.
Herbig, who Joseph pointed out, is the team’s sixth-leading tackler but by far leads the team in sacks with 11. Fellow linebackers Maema Njongmeta (71), Jordan Turner (50) and C.J. Goetz (47) lead the Badgers in tackles. Safety John Torchio has ran back two of his five interceptions this year for touchdowns — one against Illinois State and one against Purdue.
Just Michigan State has scored more than 24 points against Wisconsin since Leonhard, the defensive coordinator, took over as head coach. And that game went into double overtime. Opponents have scored just 27 touchdowns against the Badgers this season. That includes just 20 red zone touchdowns out of 33 trips. In fact, teams are just 76% (25 for 33) scoring at all in the red zone against Wisconsin.
This is another case of traditional Wisconsin. Sophomore running back Braelon Allen is the next in Nebraska’s gauntlet of tough backs. He’s got 1,029 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground this year. His toughness, and how he gains those yards, stands out to coaches more than the stats.
“He is a really, really good running back,” Joseph said earlier this week. “He is probably one of the best running backs we have seen this year. We have been seeing some of the really good backs in the country. This kid is special.”
He’s a more physical 18-year old running back than most teams see. Allen measures in at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds. He’s an appealing prospect. Leonhard even made waves locally earlier this week by insinuating that other schools are tampering with Allen to get him into the transfer portal. Backup Isaac Gurendo is trending upward following a strong showing against Iowa.
As much as you can trust Wisconsin to have a tough running back, you can count on him to run behind a stout offensive line.
“We’ve had a lot of games that are trench games, and this game will be the exact same thing,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Bill Busch said. “So we’re working really hard to be able to defend the part that they’re really, really good at, at the University of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin uses its strength on the ground as an asset into the air. A reliable play-action passing game has allowed Graham Mertz to find success. He’s thrown for 1,881 yards with 18 touchdowns, 8 interceptions and a 58.1% completion rate.
It’ll be on the Nebraska defense to force stops, which has been an issue at times for the Wisconsin offense. Just 61.1% of Wisconsin offensive drives involve first downs — that puts them No. 113 in the country. The Huskers will likely stress limiting yardage on first down so Wisconsin has to stretch for first downs instead of run past them.
This is curious. Freshman Nate Van Zeist has handled field goal duties over the last eight games as Vito Calvaruso is out with a leg injury. Van Zeist is 6 of 8 with a long of 39 yards (both misses inside 39) this year. He is 4 of 5 over the last two games with a 33-yard miss among his three makes against Maryland.
Andy Vujnovich punts for Wisconsin and he does it well. He averages 43.81 yards with a long of 61 yards. Of his 47 punts, 14 went beyond 50 yards, 16 went inside the 20, nine have been fair caught and four have gone into the end zone.
Guerendo and Chimere Dike are the two kickoff returners. Neither’s broke one for a score but Guerendo does have a 50-yard return this season. Dean Engram returns punts for the Badgers and averages 4.42 yards per return, with a long of 16.