Keys to the Game - Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

By John Harris
September 30, 2011

Photo: chrisdejabet

Nebraska (4 - 0), beat Wyoming last week
Wisconsin (4 - 0), beat South Dakota last week

The Green House Effect

When Tim Beck took over as Nebraska’s new offensive coordinator, most knew that he would incorporate a sort of “Back to the Future” sort of offensive gameplan, a scheme that would potentially take advantage of the running skills of QB Taylor Martinez.  And, since Beck’s been at the helm, Martinez and Rex Burkhead have been the beneficiaries of more option in the game plan and a concentrated focus on the run game.

But, at some point (this week, maybe?), a defense is going to step up and slow these two.  Now, I’m not thoroughly convinced that a defense can stop both for a full 60 minutes consistently enough to win a game but a team will slow them down.  Can Nebraska’s offense keep moving if that does happen though?

Enter Aaron Green.  The true freshman out of San Antonio was one of the most ballyhooed recruits out of that area and during the first four games of the 2011 season, he’s sort of been dipping his toe in the water, if you will.  He’s getting a few carries here, a few there, but that could change.  Against Washington, Beck utilized Green and Burkhead together in the backfield and threw the ball to Green on a wheel route up the sideline for a Nebraska touchdown.

Now, Green didn’t see the ball much against Wyoming last week, but this might be the week that Beck needs to unleash his explosive weapon.  Burkhead has plenty of wiggle and runs with power and we all know that Martinez has the ability to take every run to the house, but both of them lack the burst and speed that Green has – ah, speed… the kryptonite for the Wisconsin defense.

The Badgers defense hasn’t seen anyone of Green’s ilk this season and with the way he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he could provide the Nebraska offense with another layer, with his ability to make something happen out in space.  He may not see the field a ton, but I think that’s a mistake as Wisconsin could struggle stopping his “space-making” abilities.  Keep an eye on #2 this weekend in white – he could be the game breaker that could change the whole thing for the Huskers.

Pick your Poison

Irresistible force meet immovable object.  Okay, well, not really, but it seems that way.  Which way do you want to lose?  The run or the pass?  Two stud running backs and a great offensive line or one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in the nation throwing the football?  This one is easy for me and I think it’ll be an easy solution for the Huskers.

No matter how good Russell Wilson has been and will be, the Huskers have to stop the Badgers running game every day and twice on Saturday.  Now, wait, what?  Wilson has been the Man and you’re letting him run free?  No, not quite - and we’ll talk about Wilson in a second - but the Badgers still hang their hat on the zone running game and running backs James White and Montee Ball.  Shut down the running game and the Badgers become one-dimensional - the Wilson dimension.

It’s a nice dimension to possess, but it’s never a positive to become one-sided in a game against a dynamic defense like the Blackshirts.  Now, by stopping the run game early in this game, the Huskers can continue to reduce Wilson’s impact further.  If the Huskers shut down the run, Wilson won’t be able to “sell” the bootleg as well, one aspect of his game that could be huge this weekend.

Now, do we let Wilson run wild?  Not at all.  But, if the Huskers defense wins first and second, it’ll put Wilson in third and long situations consistently.  Then, the Huskers’ pass rush can pin its ears back and spy Wilson with Will linebacker Lavonte David, who has the speed to track Wilson if, and when, he scrambles.  So, let’s see if I can make this simple for the fightin’ Pelinis on defense – win first and second down by tackling White and Ball on first contact, get a rush out of four man front, spy David on Wilson and win the game.  Sound like a plan?  Ready, break!

Toon Time

One of the nasty little secrets of this short 2011 season is the fact that receivers have had their way with the Huskers.  (The good receivers anyway.)  Washington’s James Johnson and Jermaine Kearse combined for eleven receptions for 177 yards and four touchdowns in a matchup two weeks ago.  The Huskies stars picked up a portion of those yards in garbage time, but it was clear that the Huskers’ secondary hasn’t quite been the unit that it was in 2011.

If Wisconsin’s Wilson gets time to throw, a key figure in this game is going to be receiver Nick Toon. The 6’3” 220 pound star receiver leads the Badgers with 21 catches on the year, beyond that he’s also the most difficult matchup for anyone wearing a white jersey.  Granted, against Washington, Nebraska didn’t have the services of potential All-American Alfonzo Dennard.  The Husker corner finally got on the field at Wyoming last week after missing the first three games with a leg injury.  Dennard wants the challenge of covering Toon and he’s going to get it.  If Nebraska slows the running game and forces Wisconsin to the air early in the game, Wilson is going to find Toon.

Sure, he loves his tight end Jacob Pedersen and #2 receiver Jared Abbrederis, but he wants to break the bank with Toon and if Toon is in man coverage, Wilson’s “going after” Dennard.  Toon’s physicality could give Dennard some issues, especially if he’s truly not 100% healthy.  However, what makes this a tremendous matchup is that neither guy is going to back down.  It’s going to be Toon Time in Mad Town on Saturday night…and we’ll see if Alfonzo Dennard is ready to handle the madness.

Conclusion

A big factor in this game will be whether All-American defensive tackle Jared Crick is healthy for Saturday.  He missed last week’s game at Wyoming, presumably to get back to as close to 100% as possible for the trip to Madison.  His presence in the lineup is crucial if Nebraska is going to slow down the Badgers zone running game.  Crick is a monster up front due to his quickness and ability to disrupt the blocking schemes.  If he can create havoc and help force the Badgers to the air, it’s a huge “win” for the Huskers.

All in all, I honestly don’t think Wisconsin has been tested this year, its defense in particular.  Martinez will have his best “combo” game of the year and lead the Huskers to their first ever Big 10 victory… and a key one in the championship race of 2011.

Nebraska - 26 vs. Wisconsin - 20

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