Huskers, Badgers bracing for emotional B10 opener
It's not as if Saturday night's Wisconsin-Nebraska game needs more buildup.
After all, it's the Big Ten opener, the 22nd-ranked Cornhuskers (3-1) are looking to pay back the two-time defending champion Badgers (3-1) for the beat-down they got last year, and both teams will wear alternate uniforms for the first time.
A little more spice was added to the budding rivalry when Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert offered up some game-week trash talk.
Gilbert told a Madison, Wis., reporter that Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez is a ''soft kid'' and that he didn't believe Martinez was any better a passer than the one who threw three game-turning interceptions last year.
''A lot of emotions are going to be in the game,'' Nebraska safety P.J. Smith said, ''but we need to channel that and settle it down and just go out there and do the things we're supposed to do.''
Both teams have plenty to prove.
Nebraska's three wins came against overmatched opponents. The Huskers' loss came on the road to UCLA in a game in which the Bruins amassed 653 yards, the second-most ever by a Nebraska opponent.
Leaders Division favorite Wisconsin, for its part, hasn't acted like a two-time defending conference champion. The Badgers barely beat FCS-level Northern Iowa, then lost at Oregon State and fired their offensive line coach. They needed Utah State to miss a last-second field goal to win 16-14, and then won 37-26 against UTEP.
''I'm excited because this club that I'm coaching has gotten better the last two weeks without a doubt,'' Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. ''We made some changes. We made some obvious changes, ones that are well-documented. There are a lot of changes that no one (in the media) has any idea what we did.''
In addition to Bielema firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson and replacing him with second-year graduate assistant Bart Miller, the Badgers benched starting quarterback Danny O'Brien in favor of Joel Stave.
Stave was effective in his first start, completing 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown against UTEP's 94th-ranked defense. The redshirt freshman will find the going tougher at Memorial Stadium, a place that hasn't been kind to young opposing quarterbacks.
''It should be a good atmosphere, and I'm anticipating that the fans will be excited,'' Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. ''It's a night game, and with everything involved, the fans are going to be pretty juiced up for this one.''
Gilbert plans on spoiling Martinez's evening as well. The Huskers' third-year starter leads the Big Ten and is 10th nationally in passing efficiency. Gilbert isn't impressed, and he apparently doesn't see the results of Martinez's offseason work to improve his throwing motion.
''It still looks like he's skipping rocks out there to me,'' Gilbert told ESPNWisconsin.com. Gilbert added, ''He still can't throw. I'm just going to say it. He still can't throw. He's not going to beat us with his arm.''
Gilbert also said the Badgers can neutralize Martinez with a few good licks. ''It's definitely going to be a priority. I mean, let's face it, he's a soft kid.''
Bielema said after Thursday's practice that Gilbert's comments were off base and that he would be held out of the starting lineup as punishment. Konrad Zagzebski will take Gilbert's place.
Wisconsin will get back star tailback Montee Ball, who sustained a head injury against UTEP and was cleared to play Thursday.
The game could have a major bearing on the Huskers' hopes of winning the Legends Division. They're picked third behind Michigan State and Michigan, and play three of their next four games on the road.
The Huskers finished third in the division in their first year in the Big Ten, and the program hasn't won a conference championship since 1999.
''The team is very motivated and excited for the opportunity,'' running back Rex Burkhead said. ''It has been a long offseason. It's good to get through non-conference play and to now get into the Big Ten games. We're going to be challenged right off the bat.''
Both teams' uniforms will have drastically different looks.
The Huskers will be in red jerseys and pants with a black ''N'' on their chests. Their traditional white helmet with red ''N'' will be kept on the shelf for a week. Instead, they'll wear a black helmet with a red ''N.''
Wisconsin will be in all-white with a red ''W'' on the front of the jersey. The helmets will be red with a white strip and white ''W'' that harkens to the 1962 Big Ten championship team.
Pelini isn't caught up in the excitement about the uniforms.
''I'm concerned about how the guys in those uniforms play,'' he said.