The million dollar question for Nebraska's defensive coaching staff this week is trying to figure out a way to consistently get pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.
Through four games the Badgers have given up a total of four quarterback sacks and Wilson has only thrown one interception and completed 75.8 percent of his passes in the process.
When Husker defensive line coach John Papuchis breaks down the Badgers first four games on film, he hasn't seen one team effectively get to Wilson.
"He's had a clean pocket as far as I'm concerned," Papuchis said. "I haven't seen very many times where people have gotten much pressure on him and obviously if he has that kind of time on Saturday he's going to be able to be comfortable in the pocket. Our job is to obviously disrupt that."
Wilson also does a great job of moving the pocket and getting outside to avoid opposing teams pass rushes.
Linebackers coach Ross Els said after seeing quarterbacks do that to NU the first few weeks of the season, he feels like they have a much better handle on slowing that down for this week.
"When a quarterback is leaving the pocket on a sprint out or a boot leg to their advantage he's going to have time to throw the football unless you're blitzing," Els said. "To our advantage though he's taking away about two-thirds of the field. It's a give and take.
"(Wilson) is going to hold the ball when he's able to sprint out, but hopefully our coverage is sound enough to that two-thirds of the field and we'll be fine."
The other aspect NU has to be prepared for is Wilson's ability to create out of the play action pass. The misconception about Wisconsin is they're predominately a running team, where's it's actually the complete opposite.
The Badgers currently lead the Big Ten in passing yards per game and 53.9 percent of their offensive production has come through the air.
"They are very sound with their running game and they absolutely kill people with their play action pass," Els said. "We have to be physical, we have to very disciplined and come with a lot energy. We are looking forward to this one."
Papcuhis added NU is going to also have to take away the pocket from Wilson.
"You have to be relentless in terms of your pass rush and get a good push up the middle and force (Wilson) out of the pocket and flush him out," Papuchis said. "You have to try to get him moving side-to-side and hopefully your defensive ends or somebody on the outside is going to track him down.
"The key to any good pass rush is getting a push up to the middle and that's going to be a key on Saturday."
Young, speedy receivers could be difference for NU
Led by cast of talented underclassmen, Nebraska doesn't have the advantage of a very veteran receiving corps this season. What it lacks in experience at the position, though, it more than makes up for with pure athleticism.
With the likes of redshirt freshman Kenny Bell, sophomore Quincy Enunwa and true freshman Jamal Turner all emerging as dependable targets in the passing game, the Huskers are hoping to utilize their playmaking abilities against Wisconsin's defense on Saturday.
"I hope our speed runs free a lot," head coach Bo Pelini said. "I hope they score a lot of touchdowns. I like our wide receivers. They're guys who can do to things with the ball in their hand and they can go deep on you. I think we have some talent there. It is some green talent. We have some experience, yes, but we have young guys also. We have a lot to improve upon, but I like that position for us."
What makes the match-up even more attractive for NU coming into the game is the fact that Wisconsin's secondary is dealing with injuries and inexperience issues of its own.
In last week's when over South Dakota State, strong safety Shelton Johnson left the game with a calf injury. Senior safety Aaron Henry also missed most of the Badgers' second game against Oregon State with an ankle injury.
Both players are expected to be in the lineup on Saturday, but like the Huskers, Wisconsin has had to do a bit of shuffling in its secondary already this season.
Even with some temporary injuries, Wisconsin has been about as good as any team in college football against the pass through its first four games. The Badgers rank 10th nationally in pass defense at 157.3 yards per game, and have given up an average of just 8.5 points, the third fewest in the country.
At the same time, Nebraska has thrived off big pass plays all season. The Huskers already have 10 completions of 25 yards or more on the year, with Bell, Turner and tight end Kyler Reed being quarterback Taylor Martinez's favorite deep threat targets.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Wisconsin's secondary would be Nebraska's biggest test thus far, but as long as his receivers continued to progress as rapidly as they have over the first four weeks, he said there should be a few more chances for some big plays through the air on Saturday.
"They're physical guys," Beck said. "It's a big challenge for us. We're a young football team at that position (receiver), and we've got to have guys step up and make plays for us. A lot of them are getting better, though, and you see our guys able to step up and make some plays.
"As long as we keep developing and keep getting better, I'm going to be pleased, but it's going to be a challenge indefinitely."
- Robin Washut
Similarities between Nebraska, Wisconsin run deep
If there's anyone who could compare the football programs of Nebraska and Wisconsin, it's Barry Alvarez.
A former Husker linebacker, Alvarez coached the Badgers from 1990-2005 and is now in his seventh year as UW's athletic director. During a media teleconference on Wednesday, Alvarez proudly admitted how he modeled Wisconsin's program after Nebraska when he took over 22 years ago.
"You know, I stole the walk-on program from Nebraska," Alvarez said. "Having being one Division I school in the state, as Nebraska is, I really felt that there were a lot of players that were borderline. Guys that you're not quite ready to pull the trigger on, that we would actively recruit. Quite frankly, they've been our savior. I call them our erasers. The make up for any mistakes you make in recruiting. I know we have three on offense starting right now. I'm not sure on defense, probably at least a couple on defense and over the years, every Rose Bowl team we've had, has had a walk-on as a captain. That is definitely something I took form Nebraska.
"My background and what I believe in, in football was established at the university of Nebraska. I felt fortunate to play for a great coach in Bob Devaney. He had a tremendous staff. As far as fundamentals, physical play, sound play, all those things are things I took with me and brought to this program."
Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown, who's coached at Nebraska for all but four years since 1987, said he's seen a number of obvious similarities between the programs, both on the field and off.
More than anything, he said the cultural characteristics the states of Nebraska and Wisconsin share are what make the teams such mirrored programs.
"I think there's a basic foundation of physicality," Brown said. "This is a rugged state. Wisconsin is a rugged state. It's a prairie state. The people have been ranchers and farmers, and they're outdoorsmen. Kids grow up in these states, and I'm sure Wisconsin kids grow up thinking I want to put the 'W' on my helmet. Kids grow up in the state of Nebraska wanting to put the 'N' on my helmet. A lot of kids from that area of the country, and I'm sure they recruit nationally too just like we do, but a lot of our kids come from here, particularly the walk-on players. So there's a ruggedness. There's a physicality. We endure tough elements, weather, all kinds of things, and the people love ball.
"The people in Wisconsin love football. The people in Nebraska love football. There's a game day environment that's unparalleled compared to most other areas of the country
There are a lot of similarities, and it starts - as you listen to their coach talk and their program, you've seen it for years - with big, physical, run the football, get after you, and that's who we've been. We've had that kind of nature on both sides of the ball in our program for a number of years."
- Robin Washut
Badgers want to slow down NU's running attack
When Wisconsin's defense looks at trying to slow down the Husker offense, it's pretty clear things start with Martinez and junior running back Rex Burkhead on the ground.
Martinez and Burkhead rank second and third respectively in the Big Ten in rushing yards, while Nebraska leads the league overall in yards on the ground. Badger linebacker Chris Borland said he knows they have their work cut out on Saturday.
"It's going to start with the run," Borland said. "They like to run the ball, tremendous option attack, and a really aggressive, fast line. Burkhead's a great running back and, obviously, everyone knows that Taylor Martinez is fast, and he can run. So it's going to start with stopping their run."
Borland compared Martinez to some of the better running quarterbacks who have played in college football over the last few seasons.
"I think he's right in the caliber of Denard Robinson and Terrelle Pryor with how fast he is, and he cuts extremely well too," Borland said. "Probably one of the best running quarterbacks I've seen on film since being in college, and he's going to give a real test to our defense this week."
- Sean Callahan
***Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said junior Daimion Stafford has been working almost entirely at safety this week after starting at nickel last week against Wyoming. He's expected to get the start at safety opposite Austin Cassidy.
***As for the other cornerback spot opposite Alfonzo Dennard, Raymond said it was still up for grabs at this point. He said the competition at that spot would continue until someone stepped up and earned the job outright.
"It's going to be (a competition) until somebody steps up plays to the way we want to play at Nebraska," Raymond said.
***Raymond said Dennard has looked good all week in practice after playing in his first game of the season last week.
"He's getting better," Raymond said. "He's doing all the little bitty things to make himself right, shaking all the rust off."
***After starting the season opener and the second half of last year, Ssafety Courtney Osborne's role in the secondary has been almost completely been erased over the last few weeks. Raymond said his disappearance didn't have anything to do with his performance in a game or in practice, but just that there were too many players ahead of him to get him on the field.
"We just wound up getting a lot of guys in and getting a lot of guys ready to play, and that's just what's going on right now with everything," Raymond said.
***Raymond compared Wisconsin's receivers to what Nebraska saw two weeks ago against Washington.
"They're similar guys to Washington's receivers," he said. "They're going to get out there and compete for the ball, and they're very athletic. They're going to get the ball, and we have to come up with something to what they're doing."
***Junior defensive end Cameron Meredith said everything on Saturday will start with slowing down Wisconsin's running game.
"We know they're going to try to run the ball on us and if we can control that and keep their line from getting to the second level I think we'll be fine," Meredith said.
***Els said when Wisconsin is in two tight end or two back sets NU will have three linebackers on the field, but when they go three or four wide they plan to match personnel like normal.
***No matter who you are, Saturday's ticket to the Wisconsin is game is a tough one to get. Els joked that his allotted tickets were long gone a while back.
"Gone, early," Els said of his tickets. "There are no tickets left for this game. They were gone at the beginning of the year, no question."
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