MADISON — With a stout defense, the No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers are favorites against the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday night at Camp Randall.
At 5-2 (2-2), the Badgers need to win this game in order to keep playoff hopes alive. Despite ranking first in the Big Ten West at 7-0 (4-0), Nebraska is an 8.5-point underdog in this Saturday night’s matchup. Wisconsin’s defense, however, understands the complexity of this Nebraska offense and the challenge it will bring.
“They have a pro-style offense, and they have a quarterback run, RPO kind of thing. The quarterback is their main focal point,” starting inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said of Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Armstrong has made 103 of 186 throws (55.4% completion) this season for 1611 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has a 142.3 quarterback rating in Nebraska’s first seven games. The senior quarterback excels at ball security with only five interceptions this season. What Wisconsin defensive players have recognized as well is the quarterback’s ability to extend plays and prevent turnovers.
“He’s’ really good when the play breaks down, and he does a great job of making something explosive happen,” Edwards said.
Inside linebacker Leon Jacobs, who may be starting for the injured Jack Cichy, also called Armstrong a great scrambler. According to outside linebacker T.J. Watt, containing the quarterback will be a necessary task to win on Saturday.
While Armstrong may be the most noticeable player on Nebraska’s offense, it is the whole offensive unit that makes the team so successful, particularly in their ability to run two types of offensive styles.
“They have two totally different offenses almost,” Watt said. “They’re under center at one time, an they’re in the gun at other times.”
Some of Nebraska’s key rushing and passing leaders include senior running back Terrell Newby with 103 carries for 511 yards and four touchdowns and senior wide receiver Alonzo Moore with 13 receptions for 324 yards and two touchdowns. Moore averages 24.9 yards a play.
To stop the offense, Watt said every player just has to do their 1/11th, trust in their teammates and “just be schematically sound.” Similar to Ohio State, Nebraska runs a zone-read offense, which will require extra attention to detail on the part of the Wisconsin defense.
The defense will also face the added difficulty of player adjustments with the loss of inside linebacker Jack Cichy. Cichy, who was a key playmaker on the defense and the Badgers’ leading tackler this season, was announced out for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral injury. Either Ryan Connelly or Leon Jacobs will take Cichy’s place at inside linebacker alongside T.J. Edwards. Defensive players are confident in both Connelly and Jacobs to take over in the starting role.
“It’s definitely a collective effort up front,” Watt said. “We’re not going to put all the pressure on Ryan Connelly or Leon Jacobs. That’s not the case at all. We’re going to gather around each other and do this together like we do each week. It’s never a one-man show here. We’re going to need each and every physician just like every week.”
Whether it’s the changing linebacking unit or the secondary unit with playmakers in cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal, the Wisconsin is showing their strength and maintaining a high caliber defense despite injuries. What pushes the defense is something that players and head coach Paul Chryst are referring to as grit.
“Grit to me is when one man goes down, the next man goes up,” Jacobs said. “No one complains. We’re always going into practice. No one is going to whine and complain in our practice. No one is going to go out with a small injury. If someone is going to come out, you know they have a season-ending injury or a major injury. It’s tough guys.”
Against an undefeated team, the defense will have to show their grit, something they claim to have from their t-shirts in the locker room to their performance on the field. Wisconsin’s defense has kept the team alive in close matched games, including two tough losses against Michigan and Ohio State. The defense will be needed if the Badgers want to take down Nebraska and take a step closer to a Big Ten championship.
Wisconsin and Nebraska kick off on Saturday at 6:00pm CT.