It's once again that time. After a week off, your Nebraska Cornhuskers go into their final three games of the year.
First up are those Wisconsin Badgers tomorrow in a 2:30 Central kick on ABC from Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
What should we know about the Badgers? For that, we turn to the fine folks over at Bucky's 5th Quarter, the SBNation community that covers Badger Sports really damn well. Andrew Rosin, who is one of the Editors of B5Q, took my questions and gave us what I wanted to know and then some.
1. So, 7-2 for the Badgers, but it seems like it’s been very quiet this year outside of Madison as far as talk of how good this team is. What’s the general mood of everyone as they head into the game this week?
The general mood is that the Badgers could have been 9-0, and if the offensive coordinator wasn't screwing around so dang much, they would have been 9-0. Most people think the Badgers would have held on despite the weird disappearance of Melvin Gordon and stupid usage of Tanner McEvoy if the defensive line didn't send seven dressed players to Houston and have two get hurt (Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring). And honestly, some people would have been fine firing the offensive coordinator after the Northwestern game. Because Tanner McEvoy's usage didn't improve between LSU and then, and it's a loss that looks more inexplicable as the weeks go on.
2. Melvin Gordon is the man on offense for the Badgers. 7 yards a carry and 21 total touchdowns this year, how has he gotten better this season?
Vision and patience between the tackles. 2013 Melvin Gordon was a lot like the runner you saw in the Big Ten title game (#WisconsinJustScoredAgain), he did a billion worth of damage with the jet sweep and when that was taken away, James White became the better back. This year? Even while the offense had no idea how to throw the ball and there was no rhyme or reason in the two-quarterback system? Melvin Gordon was dominating. The only time he didn't was because Western Illinois absolutely refused to let Melvin Gordon beat them even when the score was 31-9 in the Badgers favor. He might not win the Heisman, but the ability to pick and slide going off tackle saved the Badgers season.
I can give you the difference in four words. McEvoy runs, Stave doesn't. That said, McEvoy doesn't have the same sort of passing skill that Joel Stave does. Tanner McEvoy's not a drop back, progress through his reads, and find the open man kind of guy. You've got to move him, throw it short, and you'll find success. He's not going to be the play action fake and see if you can hit a home run guy that Stave is. Kind of a roundabout way to say yes, the offense changes when you see McEvoy enter the game. But you've got an extra running threat to account for in the backfield.
It's kind of like 2012 (#WisconsinJustScoredAgain) all over again. Alex Erickson and Sam Arneson are the only consistent go-to's in the passing game, though Troy Fumagalli's 8 catches come with an 8 game consecutive reception streak. He's likely going to get a pass or two between 10-20 yards. Otherwise, they'll try to take what the defense gives them. Kenzel Doe, Jordan Frederick, and the running backs (which are an integral part of when the Badgers pass the ball), can disappear for games at a time, but they all have at least one game with three catches. Which tells you that the Badgers only pass when it's absolutely necessary, Honestly, the best thing you can say about the Badgers receivers is that they block well and they'll return most everyone next year.
5. Michael Caputo seems to be the leader on this Defense, but there are a lot of guys who seem to be playmakers. What makes this Defensive unit so special? And how were teams like LSU and Illinois able to score on it?
What makes this defense special is that no one really saw this coming. I thought the linebackers were going to be solid, but the Badgers basically came into this season with a completely new front seven. Warren Herring is likely going to be a steal for an NFL team next season. When he's healthy, the running game gets locked down and you see the Badgers linebackers making plays. And they can make a lot of plays. Derek Landisch always seems to find a way to cause a big loss or two in the backfield, and one of Bret Bielema's top recruits of 2012 in Vince Biegel is growing into a beast in the past few weeks. They'll blitz and attack from every angle. And while you can get a home run off of that (see Akeem Hunt last week), the Badgers defense gets off the field and gives your punter a lot of practice (the Badgers are forcing 8 punts a game). Oh, and they actually have a shut-down cornerback in Darius Hillary.
LSU and Illinois are different because while the Badgers defense is good, their defensive line is thin. They lost Zagzebski and Herring for the LSU game and all of the sudden they had 5 healthy defensive linemen. Herring was still gone for the Illinois game, and they ended up running 2 defensive linemen The Badgers special teams weakness gave them short fields for their first two drives. And when it was 38-14 and Illinois put in Aaron Bailey, they just ran a metric ton of zone read. And it's hard to stop a zone read when you don't have a defensive end to force a quick decision.
I'm only going to speak about the offense here because the defense has changed quite a bit from the last time you saw the Badgers (#WisconsinJustScoredAgain). The reason why it's still power running and only passing when necessary is because Tanner McEvoy wasn't the best quarterback for the job. Stylistically, Gary Andersen does prefer a running quarterback, but he's always liked running the ball overall. I mean, he's one of the rare coaches that had two running backs in the same draft class not only drafted, but stick on their respective teams. The Badgers infrastructure being what it was? He's not going to change the thing that has become the Badgers trademark.
7. The Freedom Trophy... your thoughts?
While I am looking to see if I can't get the Red Menace over as a nickname for the Badgers defense, I love Freedom. I love America. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Wait, this is text, no one's going to chant along. Long story short, meh.
8. Sounds like a lot of Husker fans are coming to Madison again. Are the locals more prepared than they were in 2011? And, what spots are you going to recommend this time around?
If you're planning on taking over Madison again, then you will likely get the same amount of snarky comments and insults that you got in 2011. Because the thing about Madison, outside of the occasional curse chants, is that they don't really care if your red has an N on it so long as you don't act like a swaggering idiot. Sure, every fanbase has the jagoff contingent, and your mileage may vary. But if you're there to enjoy the game, Badger fans aren't gonna, as Kendrick Lamar says, kill your vibe.
And if you have a story of how you were sainted and polite and a Badger fan behaved like a stereotypical weirdo NFL fan? I already said your mileage may vary and am now repeating it for emphasis. You will get fans that generally treat you how well you treat them.
I'll give you a piece of hope. One of the Badgers weaknesses has been punting and punt coverage. The Badgers currently stand 114th in punt returns allowed. De'Mornay Pierson-El is a legitimate threat to break one. In a game that feels as evenly matched as this? That might prove to give you guys
The question will be is Ameer Abdullah healthy? Because let's be honest. He's one of the handful of backs I won't just outright put Melvin Gordon out front of, and he'll find a way to get points on the Badgers. But a back with one healthy wheel against this defense is a back that's going to be eaten alive. That said, the Westerkamp vs. Shelton match-up seems like a way for you to get points. It seems like the game is gonna be a question of who screws this up more. In this instance? I'm not expecting another #WisconsinJustScoredAgain, but I am expecting Melvin Gordon to outgain Abdullah, and the defense to allow few big plays. Split the difference between a healthy Abdullah and an unhealthy one. Wisconsin 27, Nebraska 19.