Nebraska preps for Big Ten debut against Wisconsin
It is finally Nebraska-Wisconsin week after 13 months of anticipation since the Big Ten released the first football schedule to include the Cornhuskers.
The question is whether Saturday night's game between the two 4-0 teams in Madison, Wis., can live up to the hype.
The seventh-ranked Badgers did what they were supposed to against a soft nonconference schedule. They won by an average score of 49-9 with a defense that ranks in the top 10 in three of the four major categories and boast a rising star in quarterback Russell Wilson.
The No. 8 Huskers have been less impressive. They have won by an average of three touchdowns, but the defense has looked vulnerable and quarterback Taylor Martinez has been up and down.
With some 20,000 Husker fans expected to be in Madison for the game, coaches Bo Pelini of Nebraska and Bret Bielema of Wisconsin are taking different approaches in dealing with the buildup.
Pelini wouldn't bite when asked about the historical significance of Nebraska playing its first game as a Big Ten member against defending conference co-champion Wisconsin.
''None. It's the next game for us,'' he said Monday. ''It's just part of the process for us in what we're trying to accomplish as a team.''
While Pelini was playing a bit of defense against the hype, Bielema was embracing all that comes with the first game in Madison since 1962 to feature two teams ranked in the top 10.
''I told our team yesterday how many times can you as a player or a coach say that you're going to be involved with the start of league play in a new divisional alignment against an opponent the caliber of Nebraska and the tradition and history and everything that they bring with themselves - in addition to just being a really good football team this year?'' he said. ''I think Camp Randall should be rockin'.''
Wish Pelini good luck trying to downplay the game to his players.
Offensive linemen Jeremiah Sirles and Jermarcus Hardrick, and running back Rex Burkhead acknowledged that they've been talking about the trip to Wisconsin since last winter.
''You think about it all the time,'' Burkhead said.
Wisconsin's Wilson said he can feel the buzz in Madison.
''I think the level of excitement is extremely high,'' he said. ''We're definitely excited about it, but at the same time, you don't want to be too high about it.''
Though the Big Ten didn't have coaches fill out a preseason poll, media have tabbed Wisconsin as the heavy favorite to win the Leaders Division and Nebraska is a popular choice to win the Legends.
The form the Huskers have shown so far has made them a 10 1/2-point underdog Saturday. Every aspect of Nebraska's first four games has been nitpicked, all the way down to Martinez's unconventional throwing motion.
''Of course I take that as an insult,'' receiver Brandon Kinnie said. ''No respect. I'll take it and use it as motivation.''
Sirles said both teams are 4-0 and that's all that matters.
''No one at this point of the season has emerged as the greatest team in college football,'' he said. ''All the teams that are trying to be the greatest team in college football are 4-0, and we're 4-0. We're right in the thick of things of trying to get to where we want to be.''
Pelini said he can't shield his players from the hullabaloo surrounding the game, but he doesn't want them caught up in it.
''We have a really, really consistent approach around here. The No. 1 thing we have to do is take care of us. We need to get better,'' he said. ''I know you guys get sick and tired of hearing about it, but there is a process we go through and talk about on a daily basis that has nothing to do with hoopla, historical significance, your opponent, anything else.''
Bielema said the Badgers aren't perfect. Northern Illinois was tied with them late in the first quarter two weeks ago before Wisconsin rolled off 42 straight points, and the Badgers started slow against South Dakota before breaking open the game in the second quarter of a 59-10 win last week.
''Nothing on our schedule to this date will be Nebraska, I get it,'' he said.
Nebraska's Hardrick said the mood on the team changed immediately after it finished last week's 38-14 win at Wyoming.
''Everyone was hollering, `We're in the Big Ten now,''' he said. ''Everything in the nonconference doesn't matter now. Everybody has been ready to get into the Big Ten and make a statement. We've got a big game, the first Big Ten game, so it's a great chance to make a statement.''