Know the Badgers foe: Nebraska
This is the 10th in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team’s 2014 opponents.
If Wisconsin is going to have one significant nemesis in the newly formed Big Ten West, there’s no question it will be Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have been consistently good for years, and the team has never won fewer than nine games in six seasons under coach Bo Pelini.
It’s also reasonable to assume that this year’s Wisconsin-Nebraska matchup, which takes place Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium, could decide which team reaches the conference championship game. The Badgers don’t have a particularly difficult Big Ten schedule, and neither do the Cornhuskers for the most part. Outside of an October road game at Michigan State, Nebraska should be favored in every Big Ten game leading up to Wisconsin.
What do we know about Nebraska other than Pelini’s newfound penchant for cuddling cats? Let’s take a look:
Personnel: With the Taylor Martinez era over at Nebraska, it’s time for the Cornhuskers to find a new quarterback. And the man for the job appears to be Tommy Armstrong Jr., who went 7-1 in eight starts a year ago. He’ll be a redshirt sophomore, so there is plenty of room to grow after completing 51.9 percent of his passes for 966 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s also a decent runner and gained 202 yards with two scores.
At running back, Nebraska will be absolutely loaded and should be every bit as intimidating to opponents as Wisconsin’s stable of tailbacks. Ameer Abdullah is back after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns. His 6.0 yards per carry would wow most fans, though Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon averaged 7.8 yards per rush. Throw in Imani Cross (447 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Terrell Newby (298 yards, two touchdowns), and the Cornhuskers will have plenty of options in the backfield. Cross rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on just six carries during the team’s spring game. Redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, who gained 41 yards in the spring game, could also prove to be a fourth backfield threat.
Armstrong Jr. will have some options in the passing game, led by senior Kenny Bell, who has a chance to become Nebraska’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. He caught a team-high 52 passes — the third straight season he’s led Nebraska in receptions — for 577 yards with four touchdowns. Sophomore Jordan Westerkamp (20 catches, 283 yards, one touchdown) also should see an increased role with the team this season.
Defensively, safety Corey Cooper returns to help solidify a secondary that loses three starters. Cooper was the team’s leading tackler last season with 91. Linebacker David Santos will help guide the front seven after recording 87 tackles. Nebraska’s linebacker core should be pretty solid with Santos, Zaire Anderson (52 tackles), Josh Banderas (28 tackles) and Michael Rose (66 tackles).
Recent history: Wisconsin and Nebraska had not met on the football field since 1974 until the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. Now that the conference has realigned to an East-West divisional split, the teams will meet annually in what could become one of the better rivalries in the Big Ten. UW is 2-1 against Nebraska since 2011, hammering Nebraska 48-17 in the Cornhuskers’ 2011 conference opener and 70-31 in the Big Ten championship in 2012. Nebraska, meanwhile, sneaked out a 30-27 victory at home against Wisconsin in 2012.
Airing it out: One area both Nebraska and Wisconsin need to improve in 2014 is consistency in the passing game. The Cornhuskers averaged 196.7 passing yards per game last season, which ranked 11th out of 12 Big Ten teams (95th nationally). With Tommy Armstrong Jr. poised to open the season as the starter, expect that number to rise. It’s also no secret Wisconsin’s passing attack needs to improve in Year 2 of the Gary Andersen era. The Badgers averaged 197.1 passing yards per game, which tied for ninth in the Big Ten (93rd nationally).
Punt return issues: Nebraska’s punt return game last season was, in a word, awful. The Cornhuskers averaged just 3.04 yards per punt-return attempt, which was worse than all but two FBS teams — Georgia and Cal. Jordan Westerkamp handled 19 of the team’s 23 returns and gained a total of 51 yards. Wisconsin, which averaged 7.43 yards per punt return, ranked just 73rd nationally. But even a four-yard difference in field position can help alter the outcome of games.
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Nebraska 17
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter