World-Herald Staff Writer Rich Kaipust takes a look at the key matchups as Nebraska prepares to face Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship. * * *
Key matchup: Wisconsin features three offensive linemen that were first- or second-team All-Big Ten — tackle Rick Wagner, guard Ryan Groy and center Travis Frederick — and also is getting guard Kyle Costigan healthy again. The Nebraska defensive line, meanwhile, is without Baker Steinkuhler and will spend some time with 260-pound end Cameron Meredith at tackle against a big and beefy Badger front.
NU rush offense vs . Wisconsin rush defense: The Huskers still lead the Big Ten in rushing but struggled against Iowa and Minnesota. I-back Rex Burkhead restores a little power and physical element to the attack, but Nebraska took a huge hit at Iowa when it lost Justin Jackson to a foot injury. Wisconsin is stingy against the run, allowing just 111.3 yards per game, 3.4 per carry and eight rushing touchdowns. Edge: Even
NU pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense: Look for NU to utilize some of its speed with Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and Kyler Reed, who all will create problems for the Badgers. Junior Taylor Martinez started the Big 12 championship game in 2010 and ranks as the Huskers' all-time leading passer, so he comes in full of experience and capability. Wisconsin has managed a Big Ten-low six interceptions while allowing 18 TD passes. Edge: Nebraska
Wisconsin rush offense vs. NU run defense: Expect a steady diet of Montee Ball, as the senior has scored seven of his NCAA-record 79 touchdowns in two games against Nebraska. Wisconsin also is better off than it was for the first meeting with NU, when it had recently fired its offensive line coach. The Huskers give up 4.2 yards per carry, and that was before losing defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler in the middle. Edge: Wisconsin
Wisconsin pass offense vs. NU pass defense: Wisconsin senior Curt Phillips is making only his fourth career start, and it's against a team that ranks No. 1 nationally in pass defense and No. 2 in pass efficiency defense. None of the Huskers' last seven opponents have completed better than 50 percent of their passes. NU had trouble with Jared Abbrederis in the first half of their Sept. 29 game, they neutralized UW's best receiving threat by defending him with Ciante Evans after halftime. Edge: Nebraska
Special teams: One thing NU can't afford is one of the muffed punts that have plagued it recently. It also has had just one kick return longer than 26 yards and one punt return longer than 5 yards during its win streak. Wisconsin has a dangerous punt returner with Jared Abbrederis and a slight edge in net punting, but doesn't have a kicker as reliable as NU senior Brett Maher (18 of 24 on field goals). Edge: Even
Intangibles: Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten championship game a year ago and has a number of veterans that have played in back-to-back Rose Bowls. Nebraska isn't void of big-game experience, however, having played in Big 12 finals in 2009 and '10. Going indoors probably benefits the Huskers, but the crowd should be an even split. Also probably have to call the coaching a draw, since Bret Bielema and Bo Pelini have both been through their share of big games as head coaches and assistants. Edge: Even
Nebraska will win if …: It takes advantage of the potential edge it has with quarterback play and the weapons it has on offense.
Wisconsin will win if…: It can force the Huskers into one of their trademark slow starts, then both dictate the pace and finish the job.
Our take: The Huskers went 3-1 and the Badgers were 1-3 against common opponents, with the difference being NU beating Penn State and Michigan State. The Badgers had Nebraska on the ropes back on Sept. 29 with a 27-10 lead in the third quarter, but lost 30-27. And that tells the story of two seasons — NU able to win when it has the chance, Wisconsin unable to close teams out (five losses by a total of 19 points) — and perhaps this game.
Prediction: Nebraska 34, Wisconsin 24