Quarterbacks always get the brightest spotlight. It's true again this week as much of the talk around the Nebraska - Wisconsin game has been centered on Taylor Martinez and Russell Wilson. It's not surprising, given that Wilson has been responsible for 1,244 of Wisconsin's 2,129 yards while Martinez has racked up 1,068 of 1,756 yards for Nebraska.
But let's forget the quarterbacks for a moment.
Wisconsin and Nebraska share an identity as being rush-first teams. That won't change this weekend, as both teams will no doubt try to establish the run and control the line of scrimmage. That's where the running backs are crucial. While Nebraska has a lot of potential, Wisconsin has some proven talent.
Husker fans are plenty familiar with Rex Burkhead (formerly "Superman", now known as "Sexy Rexy" here at Corn Nation). Burkhead is coming off his best performance this season, amassing 170 yards against Wyoming on only 15 carries for a 11.3 yard average and two touchdowns. So far this season Burkhead has had 63 carries for 423 yards, seven touchdowns, and an average of 6.7 yards per carry. That's not bad considering Burkhead has faced his share of defenses stacked against the run.
Other than that, Nebraska's three freshmen running backs; Aaron Green, Braylon Heard, and Ameer Abdullah, have carried the ball a total of 37 times for 190 yards. Like I said, a lot of potential.
Before I get into the specifics about the Badger running backs, consider this tidbit, taken directly from Wisconsin's game notes for media:
Wisconsin is one of eight teams in the country to have not lost a fumble this sea- son. The last time a UW running back fumbled was James White against San Jose State in the second game of last season. Since then, Badger running backs have carried the ball 607 times, caught 51 passes and returned 28 kickoffs (686 total touches) without putting the ball on the turf (not just fumbles LOST, they have not fumbled at all).
Wisconsin has two primary running backs, junior Montee Ball and sophomore James White. Wisconsin is the only school in the nation to return a pair of running backs that gained at least 900 yards last season - Ball finishing 2010 at 996 yards, while White gained 1,052.
While they're listed side-by-side on the depth chart, Ball can be considered the starter. Ball lost weight since last season, down to 210 from 236, and it doesn't appear to have affected his ability to hit the line and break tackles. He's a more complete back than White, but that may be due to having more experience as much as anything else. Ball has great vision, and with the loss of weight, has more speed than last season.
White should be considered more of a speed back, the type you want to get to the edge (as if you won't be hearing that cliché 23 million times this season). He was the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Last season Wisconsin used misdirection plays to get White into position where he had to beat only one or two tacklers to break away on long gains. Where Ball might use power to beat defenders, White has some shifty moves going for him - a stutter step and burst and he's left the defender grabbing at air.
Both backs are seeing more passes thrown their way as Wisconsin has moved away (at least for this season while Wilson is around) from a tendency to force a rushing game to being content to throw the ball to soften up opposing defenses.
Husker fans might take some heart in Oregon State's performance against the Wisconsin rushing attack earlier this season. In the first quarter against the Beavers, the Badgers managed only three yards on the ground, largely accomplished because Oregon State's defense sold out against the run. Unfortunately (just when you were feeling better...), Wisconsin simply adjusted to pass more, something last year's Badger team may not have done. They would have chosen to keep smashing the ball at the defense and hope to catch them off-guard with play action. (It should be noted that Wisconsin finished the game with 208 yards rushing and two touchdowns as Oregon State wore down as the game went on.)
The obvious question is - how is Nebraska going to defend against the Wisconsin ground game?
In a word, discipline. Nebraska's defensive line will play gap defense, meaning they'll fill the gaps and not allow holes for the running backs to run through. That will be a tough challenge against a hefty Badger offensive line, the third heaviest in the country and larger than all but three NFL defensive lines. Blackshirt linebackers will need discipline to not get sucked inside so that a player like White doesn't get outside on misdirection plays.
Key to watch - does Bo Pelini go with a traditional 4-3 against Wisconsin, hoping three linebackers will stymy the Badgers running game?
I'm guessing he doesn't, but goes back to the 4-2-5 "peso" type formation he used so often last year against Big 12 offenses. More speed to match more speed.
That's the difference Russell Wilson has brought to Wisconsin.
Didn't I say to forget the quarterbacks for a bit?