Big Ten Championship 2012 preview: Both Nebraska, Wisconsin are better now

Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

Nebraska hopes to hold onto the ball, while Wisconsin hopes that the third act of an up-and-down season has a happy ending.

Half of this year's six conference title games are rematches of games that took place earlier in 2012. But unlike the other two (UCLA and Stanford played just a week ago, while Tulsa and UCF played two weeks ago), we have to go back pretty far to reflect on everything that happened in Wisconsin-Nebraska I.

The Huskers recovered their fumbles (mostly).

On a play-for-play basis, Nebraska was the better team in its 30-27 win over Wisconsin on September 29. The Huskers outgained the Badgers by a 440-295 margin and averaged 5.9 yards per play to UW's 4.3. But NU was its own worst enemy throughout the proceedings. On the Huskers' second possession, Rex Burkhead lost a fumble at the NU 23, and Wisconsin scored seven plays later to build a 14-0 lead. On their first drive of the second half, Taylor Martinez was sacked on third-and-long and lost a fumble at the NU 13. Wisconsin scored in four plays to take a 27-10 lead that it would eventually relinquish.


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It could have been so much worse, however. Nebraska fumbled four other times, including twice on scoring drives, but fell on all four. This has always been a problem throughout the Martinez era; the Huskers have been quite volatile on offense, for reasons both good and bad. In this game, Martinez fumbled three times, running back Ameer Abdullah twice and Burkhead once. With as many options and tough exchanges as the Huskers attempt in a given game, some fumbles are inevitable. But they almost lost this game because of loose balls.

Montee Ball couldn't get going, and Joel Stave wasn't ready.

For all intents and purposes, Wisconsin's offense has been a three-act play in 2012. The first act, in which the Badgers were breaking in a new quarterback, a new coaching staff and a relatively new offensive line (sans two all-conference performers), wrapped up in Lincoln. The Badgers were not a very good team in Act I, barely beating Northern Iowa, losing to Oregon State, needing luck to beat Utah State and inching past UTEP before heading to Lincoln. (We'll get to Acts II and III in a bit.)

Thanks to turnovers, Wisconsin did build a decent lead in this game, but it never felt safe because, after the first drive of the game (in which UW drove 71 yards in five plays for a touchdown), the Badgers averaged just 3.5 yards per play, scoring two of their three remaining touchdowns on turnover-induced short fields. Wisconsin leaned on Montee Ball, but he only had so much room to produce. He gained just 90 yards in 32 carries, which placed significant pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who was making just his second start after replacing the ineffective Danny O'Brien in the starting lineup. Stave was able to find receiver Jared Abbrederis early and often, completing seven of eight passes to the junior for 142 yards and a touchdown. But the rest of the Badger receiving corps caught just eight of 20 passes for 97 yards, and only three of Wisconsin's final 12 drives advanced further than 25 yards downfield.

With Stave facing a hostile environment for the first time, Wisconsin tried to keep him as comfortable as possible. He made 10 pass attempts on standard downs (first downs, second-and-6 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer) and completed six of 10 for 80 yards. In 10 play-action attempts, he completed six of nine for 142 yards and a sack. And on 16 of 26 total attempts, the Badgers attempted to protect him with six blockers instead of just five.

As long as running the ball was also a feasible option, Stave and the Wisconsin offense were alright. But the moment Wisconsin lost its leverage and fell into passing downs, the drive quickly stalled. Stave attempted 12 passes on either second-and-10 or more or third-and-7 or more. He was sacked three times (twice by unblocked defenders) and completed just two of nine passes for 34 yards. Yards per attempt in these situations: -0.1.

In the three games that followed their trip to Lincoln, Stave and the Wisconsin offense actually began to roll. The Badgers averaged 505 yards and 36 points per game against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. But that doesn't really matter now; Stave was injured against Michigan State, and senior Curt Phillips, originally the third-stringer, is now Wisconsin's starting quarterback.

Wisconsin is better now.

Wisconsin has had a rather mediocre season in all. The Badgers made their second straight Big Ten title game by way of others' wrongdoings; they finished third in the Leaders Division with a 4-4 record, but they are here because both Ohio State (8-0) and Penn State (6-2) are ineligible for the postseason. That said, however, this really has been a pretty good team over the last couple of months. Most of the mediocrity took place in September wins. Both the Northern Iowa and UTEP games were unimpressive, though in looking back at how good Utah State actually was in 2012 (No. 23 in F/+), their rather lucky win over USU (in which they needed both a punt return touchdown and a late missed field goal by the Aggies to win by two) doesn't look too bad. And in the end, all five Wisconsin losses were by seven points or fewer. The Badgers lost twice at home in overtime and three times on the road, to good teams (Oregon State, Nebraska, Penn State) by a combined nine points. The season has been mediocre, but the Badgers have actually been pretty good since a slow start.

The Wisconsin defense, a hindrance in each of the Badgers' last two Rose Bowl campaigns (36th in Def. F/+ in 2010, 43rd in 2011), has actually been fantastic down the stretch. The Badgers rank 14th in Def. F/+ this season and have allowed just 17 points and 279 yards per game (and that includes three overtime games) since the trip to Lincoln. Wisconsin prevents both short gains and long ones, and they have been spectacular against the run, ranking seventh in Rushing S&P+. Linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland have combined for 23 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 10 passes broken up, and senior corners Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie are incredibly aggressive (combined: three interceptions, 22 passes broken up), as is safety Dezmen Southward (seven tackles for loss, one pick, four passes broken up). This is probably Bielema's best defense, one that is capable of forcing plenty of mistakes from a Nebraska offense that is more than happy to make a few.

That said, while the Badgers held both Ohio State and Penn State to minuscule yardage totals (Ohio State averaged 4.0 yards per play -- 2.3 per play after the first three drives -- and Penn State averaged 4.4), they were unable to force a turnover in either game. That cost them dearly in overtime losses.

Wisconsin has indeed improved, but the best version of the Badgers stopped playing when Joel Stave went down with a broken clavicle against Michigan State. Head coach Bret Bielema didn't trust O'Brien to reassume his starting role, so he turned to senior Curt Phillips, beginning Act III of the Wisconsin season; Phillips has avoided mistakes for the most part, but he has also hasn't done a whole lot. In three starts, he has completed 30 of 57 passes (53 percent) for 386 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception, but he has also been sacked nine times. Average yards per pass attempt: 4.9. That's probably not going to cut it if the Badgers expect to pull an upset.

The Badgers do still have Montee Ball going for them, however. Ball had a terribly mediocre start to the season, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry through the season's first five games. In the last seven games, however, he has looked like Montee Ball, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 154 yards per game and scoring 12 touchdowns. His post-September performance was good enough to make him a Doak Walker Award finalist (though, honestly, it is a bit of a joke that he was selected over Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey; insert "awards and watch lists are stupid" rant here), and if Wisconsin gets another good defensive performance and at least something out of the passing game, this could be another tight affair.

Nebraska is also better.

Following its loss to Nebraska, Wisconsin livened up a bit, doing just enough to "win" the Leaders Division. Nebraska, meanwhile, had its own awakening of sorts the next week. The Huskers got drilled by Ohio State in Columbus, 63-38, but turned into perhaps the conference's best team (second-best at worst) afterward.

They survived three dicey road trips (29-28 over Northwestern, 28-24 over Michigan State, 13-7 over Iowa) and surged at home, taking out Michigan and Penn State by a combined 23 points in Lincoln. Nebraska currently ranks 14th in the F/+ rankings (NU was 33rd following the Ohio State loss; the defense has improved from 58th in Def. F/+ to 17th since then) and has completely locked things down on the defensive side of the ball. Since allowing 498 yards to Ohio State, the Huskers have allowed 18 points and 270 yards per game, and that includes contests against solid Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State offenses. (Yes, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was injured for a good percentage of that game, and no, the Wolverines had not yet handed the reins to Devin Gardner.)

While the defense has surged, the offense has mostly maintained its pace, gaining at least 438 yards in four of six games and scoring at least 23 points in five of six. Last week's trip to Iowa was ugly in all regards (NU gained 263 yards in a 13-7 win), but for the most part the Husker offense has played at a very, very high level. The Huskers are still their own worst enemy, however; they have fumbled 10 times (losing six) in the last three games and have fumbled at least twice in nine of 12 games this season. But if they can fall on their own loose balls, good things tend to happen.

As I wrote three weeks ago, Nebraska's offensive improvement can be mostly attributed to two factors not named Taylor Martinez: improved line play and fantastic play-calling and game management from the coaching staff.

As important as the line's development, however, is the simple fact that Nebraska is stealing easy yards. This is one of the most underutilized tactics in college football. When you prove you can run the ball, defenses must adapt; and when they adapt, they leave you with opportunities to make easy passes on running downs. Nebraska ran the ball 74 percent of the time on first-and-10 in 2011, and they were only average in doing it. This season, with a much-improved running game, the Huskers are actually running less frequently (68 percent) on first downs. It's the same in short yardage situations. In 2011, the Huskers ran 83 percent of the time on second-and-4 or fewer; they are running just 75 percent of the time in 2011. They also ran 77 percent of the time on third-and-3 or fewer; that has dropped to a shocking 58 percent in 2012. […]

Martinez's throwing motion really hasn't improved that much, but it hasn't had to. Play-action and simple passes on short-yardage situations have given Nebraska opportunities to make Martinez's life easier, and it has. Second-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck has also entrusted Martinez to do more on passing downs -- after running 43 percent of the time on passing downs in 2011, the Huskers are doing so just 37 percent of the time in 2012 -- and it hasn't necessarily paid off that much. But thanks to the play-calling, Martinez is dealing with far fewer passing downs than he did a year ago. Beck and line coach Barney Cotton deserve a significant amount of credit for Nebraska's offensive improvement in 2012.

Nebraska's offense currently ranks ninth in Adj. Line Yards and fourth in Rushing S&P+. Wisconsin's defense: 43rd and 13th, respectively. Nebraska's offensive line trumps Wisconsin's front four, but the Badger linebackers basically even the score. Taylor and Borland combined for 17.0 tackles, two tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries in the first Nebraska-Wisconsin game, but Martinez, Abdullah and Burkhead combined to rush 40 times for 273 yards. If they can raise their level of disruptiveness a bit, and if they can leverage Taylor Martinez into situations in which he has to throw, the Badgers could easily get enough stops to win this game. But that has been very, very difficult to do in 2012.

(The same sentiment goes in the other direction, too. If Wisconsin can secure decent first-down yardage and avoid passing downs itself, it could do some damage.)

**********

The F/+ picks say Nebraska should win this one by about six points. Honestly, I am inclined to lean more toward Nebraska by 10 to 14, simply because Wisconsin's offense is still limited and Nebraska ran the ball so well on the Badgers the first time around. Both times have improved since that first meeting, so this should be a more high-quality affair than the records might suggest.

But as with most Nebraska games, it could come down to loose balls and turnovers. If the Huskers hold onto the ball, they will probably win. But Wisconsin won't need too many breaks to turn the tables in Indianapolis.

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