Know The Foe: A Closer Look at Wisconsin
Nebraska hosts No. 9 Wisconsin on Saturday night intent on breaking through against a pesky division rival.
The Badgers escaped Lincoln two years ago with a victory on a late field goal and prevailed last year in overtime. The Freedom Trophy, only in its fourth year, knows only Madison as home.
Nebraska (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) can do more than win a conference trophy game if it upends Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0). The Huskers could also take the steering wheel in the race for the Big Ten West title, one Wisconsin claimed last season.
Plenty of ties exist between these Big Ten foes.
Most notably, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez played at Nebraska, lettering for coach Bob Devaney from 1965-67.
Lesser known is that Dave Rimington, the former Nebraska lineman currently serving as Nebraska’s Interim Director of Athletics, served as a graduate assistant under Alvarez in the early 1990s, helping the Badgers to the 1993 Rose Bowl. Rimington earned a master’s degree in international studies from Wisconsin in 1992.
Current Wisconsin assistants Ted Gilmore and Joe Rudolph are former Nebraska assistants, both joining the Huskers under former coach Bill Callahan.
As it pertains to Saturday night’s game, the most compelling tie comes between the head coaches, Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst. On two different occasions, Chryst worked for Riley at Oregon State, serving as offensive coordinator in 2003 and 2004, that after serving as an assistant in 1997 and 1998.
Their coaching relationship dates to 1991 and 1992, when Chryst served as an offensive assistant under Riley with the World League’s San Antonio Riders.
While Nebraska saw outstanding athletes and general impressive athleticism against Oregon, Riley said, this Wisconsin team is the best, all-around team the Huskers will have faced this season.
This is also Nebraska’s first game against a ranked team this season. The Huskers are unranked but have defeated a Top 10 team three times in school history while being unranked, including two years ago against Michigan State.
Nebraska has won 20 straight home night games and is 46-5 all-time in night games at Memorial Stadium. Those five losses came to teams that won at least 10 games that season.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, is 9-1 in true road games in its third season under Chryst, who took over at Wisconsin when Gary Andersen left for Oregon State, where Andersen took over for Riley, when Riley came to Lincoln.
Here’s a closer look at Wisconsin.
Badgers on Offense
First-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, no stranger to Wisconsin from his playing days at Iowa, said it best when scouting the Badgers.
“They know who they are on offense. They know who they are in terms of recruiting,” Diaco said. “It looks and feels like the Wisconsin offense from when I was a player in this league. So big, strong, cohesive, one unit; everybody knows their job, big tackle-breaking runners, excellent tight ends, just a strong, strong offense.”
Nebraska will want to pressure quarterback Alex Hornibrook and force him into mistakes, but the Huskers had best do that early, as Hornibrook has a penchant for getting better as the game progresses.
Hornibrook already ranks third among Power Five quarterbacks in passing efficiency with a rating of 176.8, but that number skyrockets to 246.5 after halftime. On third down, he’s 20-of-32 passing with five touchdowns and one interception, for a pass efficiency rating of 195.8.
Of course, Wisconsin is best known for its power running game. The Badgers average 233.8 rushing yards per game, second-best in the Big Ten. Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor averages a Big Ten-best 129.5 rushing yards per game, and 7.2 yards per carry.
A main difference in Wisconsin’s running game, as compared to Nebraska's, Riley said, is the number of pulling linemen.
“When you watch Wisconsin, you’ll see multiple pullers sometimes on power plays, or gap-type plays, where [an offensive lineman] blocks down, pulls and comes around the edge,” Riley said. “I think that they’re definitely heavier in that area than we are, and those are more downhill power-type plays.
A big question mark Saturday will be the health of tight end Troy Fumagalli, who’s listed as questionable. Fumagalli, a preseason first-team All-American, has 15 catches for 236 yards and three touchdowns in his three games.
With or without Fumagalli, Diaco is impressed with the overall tight end play of Wisconsin.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to think you could see better tight ends in the league than them, maybe as good or better,” Diaco said. “They’re pretty excellent. They create a problem.”
Badgers on Defense
Wisconsin ranks in a tie for eighth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 13.5 points per game, and stands fourth in total defense, allowing 247 yards per game.
Of course, anyone who’s followed Wisconsin in recent seasons shouldn't be surprised at those statistics.
“The defense has been like this for a while,” Riley said. “They play hard, they’re well-coached, very, very aggressive.”
To wit: The Badgers produced eight sacks against Northwestern last Saturday. By comparison, Nebraska has allowed eight sacks all season.
“They’re hard to run against, and they rush the quarterback well,” Riley said. “We’re going to have to find our balance and be real good in those areas. We’re going to have to protect the quarterback, and we’re going to have to run the ball.”
Senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley had 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss against Northwestern, and senior safety Natreel Jamerson collected two interceptions against the Wildcats.
“They are solid across the board, personnel wise. Really good statistically,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “I think they’re the top two or three in our conference and top 10 nationally. So they’re really scouting against the run. The scoring defense does well. They’ll be the best defense we’ve faced.”
The Badgers have held three of four opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards, including a measly 25 to Northwestern (again, a number reflective of eight sacks).
Since moving to a 3-4 defensive scheme in 2013, the Badgers are allowing 16.4 points per game, behind only Alabama for fewest points allowed during the stretch. Wisconsin has impressively maintained consistency despite being on its third defensive coordinator in as many seasons; Jim Leonhard is leading this year’s unit.
Badgers on Special Teams
Sophomore kicker Zach Hintze is hitting touchbacks on 73.7 percent of his kickoffs, the best mark in the Big Ten, and the No. 12 mark nationally. On average, Wisconsin opponents have started drives at their own 23.5-yard line following kickoffs.
On returns, sophomore A.J. Taylor averages 25 yards on kickoff returns to rank sixth in the Big Ten.
Nebraska fans will also remember kicker Rafael Gaglianone, who kicked a 46-yard field goal with 4 seconds remaining two years ago in Lincoln for a 23-21 Wisconsin victory. Gaglianone has connected on 14 of his last 16 field goal attempts, dating to last year’s Holiday Bowl.
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