Badgers’ top-ranked defense impressed by Nebraska’s explosive offense

The Badgers' top-ranked defense has faced only three teams that rank in the top 75 in scoring offense this season. The Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin's opponent on Saturday, enter the game ranked ninth nationally in scoring offense (40.4 points per game).

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MADISON, Wis. — Flattery has come in many forms this week as Wisconsin’s defense presents its list of concerns about playing against Nebraska’s high-octane offense. Just listen:

"Their skill is unbelievable," Badgers linebacker Derek Landisch said.

"They’ve got a lot of playmakers on the offensive side," nose guard Warren Herring said. "They’re a very explosive offense."

"Really good skill position," defensive end Konrad Zagzebski said. "They’re all really fast."

"They’re going to make you move," Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "We have faced teams that have been that way. But the difference is, they don’t have the skill that Nebraska has."

Skill. Playmakers. Explosive. That’s the general sentiment concerning Nebraska this week. Now, the question is: Can Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense shut down everything the Cornhuskers have to offer in the most significant game of the season for both teams?

No. 22 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1) plays host to No. 11 Nebraska (8-1, 4-1) at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium, with the inside track for the Big Ten West title on the line. And Nebraska will enter the game ranked ninth nationally in scoring offense (40.4 points per game). Wisconsin has not faced an offense this season ranked in the top 40 nationally in that category.

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In fact, Wisconsin has played only three teams that rank in the top 75 in scoring offense: No. 43 Bowling Green (32.9 points per game), No. 55 LSU (30.8) and No. 61 Maryland (30.3). While none of those teams reached 30 points against Wisconsin, the challenge this week is astronomically more difficult, the Badgers say.

Badgers coach Gary Andersen noted Nebraska’s offense presented elements of other teams Wisconsin has faced this season, but nobody held the "total package" like the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s use of multiple formations reminded Andersen of Maryland, and the Cornhuskers’ willingness to pound the ball in the run game was similar to South Florida.

Leading the charge will be Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., who ranks second in the Big Ten in total offense behind only Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett. Armstrong is a capable passer (203.0 yards per game) but also is a running threat. He averages 63.4 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry.

"It’s tough when you have that dual-threat quarterback, especially how athletic he is with his ability to make plays with his feet, and then he can throw the ball really well, too," Zagzebski said.

Added Herring: "You’ve got to put pressure on him. He’s able to get out of the pocket. He’s a playmaker. You definitely have to account for him."

Of course, what makes Nebraska’s offense special this season is that no one player must carry the load. Tailback Ameer Abdullah is expected to play after suffering an MCL sprain in Nebraska’s Nov. 1 victory against Purdue. Like Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon, Abdullah is a Heisman Trophy candidate. He has rushed for 1,250 yards with 17 touchdowns. Only Gordon (19) and Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin (22) have run for more scores.

"He’s a great running back, and he’s an elite running back," Andersen said of Abdullah. "And I’ve known that about Melvin for a very long time. So it’s going to be fun to watch them go head to head. I’m Melvin’s guy. Melvin’s in our corner. So I think Melvin’s the best. But Mr. Abdullah may be right behind him."

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If that two-headed offensive monster wasn’t enough, Nebraska also boasts wide receiver Kenny Bell, who has an opportunity to become the first Cornhuskers player to lead the team in receptions for four consecutive seasons. Bell leads the team in catches this year (34) with 577 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Jordan Westerkamp is close behind with 33 catches for 600 yards and four touchdowns.

Wisconsin’s task will be to prove its billing as the No. 1-ranked unit in total defense is legitimate. Five of the Badgers’ eight FBS opponents so far this season rank in the bottom half of college football in scoring offense. And though the defense has surrendered just two touchdowns in the last three games, Nebraska represents the ultimate test.

"I don’t want to sound boring, but every week is a statement week," Herring said. "That’s how we have to approach it, and we take pride in being No. 1 in defense.

"We’re confident in what we have going on right now playing against some high-powered offenses and being able to do what we’ve done so far. This upcoming week is just another week to be able to put a stamp on what Wisconsin is."

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