Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
It isn’t a stretch to say that this weekend’s matchup between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Nebraska Cornhuskers is the biggest conference game of the Gary Andersen era. At stake in the Saturday afternoon showdown at Camp Randall Stadium: Big Ten West supremacy.
No. 20 Wisconsin (7-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) and No. 16 Nebraska (8-1, 4-1) are both currently part of a three-way tie atop the Big Ten West standings, along with Minnesota. However, the Gophers have to face the eighth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes this weekend, so there’s a decent chance that whoever emerges victorious in Madison will have the inside track in the race for the division crown.
In addition to gaining an edge in the division standings, the Badgers and Cornhuskers will also be playing for the newly christened Freedom Trophy, which was unveiled earlier this week.
The stakes for this game are obviously high, as both teams have put themselves in a position to potentially earn a spot in the Big Ten championship game, but Andersen noted that this final three-game stretch as a whole will be pivotal for the Badgers.
“Anybody in the world can start something,” Andersen said. “That’s easy to do. It’s hard to sustain it.”
Fans have also had this game marked on the calendar since the beginning of the season due to the fact that it will feature two of the best running backs in the entire country: Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah.
Gordon has rushed for 1,501 yards (the most in the FBS), 19 touchdowns and is averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Abdullah has been excellent as well, running for 1,250 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Abdullah also leads the country with 1,691 all-purpose yards.
With game-time temperatures expected to be in the 20s, the ability to run the ball will likely play a huge factor in who will win the game, so fans will get to see plenty of each team’s superb running back.
“From what I know about Ameer, he’s a tremendous young man and I know that he’s a tremendous football player. And Melvin is exactly the same,” Andersen said. “(Abdullah) is a great running back. He’s not a good running back, he’s a great running back and he’s an elite running back. And I’ve known that about Melvin for a very long time. It’s going to be fun to watch them go head to head.”
The UW offense will also look to continue to find contributions from both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, who have both been performing better as of late. Over the past three games, Stave has completed 58.3 percent of his passes while throwing four touchdowns and just one interception. McEvoy has been used mostly on the ground, running for 146 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries over that same span.
The Wisconsin defense, which gives the fewest total yards per game in the FBS (251.1), will face its toughest test yet as they try to contain Abdullah, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and the rest of the Cornhusker offense. Nebraska is averaging 490.6 yards of total offense, 18th-most in the nation. Though Dave Aranda’s unit has been fantastic, they’ve only faced one Top 40 offense this season (Bowling Green, 36th in total yards).
As for Nebraska, Bo Pelini’s team will be looking to reverse its trend of struggling against ranked teams on the road. Under Pelini, who began his tenure in 2008, the Cornhuskers are 21-10 on the road, but have lost 8 of their 11 road games against ranked opponents. This includes a 48-17 drubbing at the hands of the Badgers in 2011, Nebraska’s first conference game as a member of the Big Ten.
However, the Cornhuskers nearly pulled off an incredible fourth-quarter comeback earlier this season against Michigan State in East Lansing, and the Badgers know they’ll be getting their best effort given what’s at stake. Wisconsin has bounced back well from a dreadful loss against Northwestern and now has put itself in a position to potentially win the Big Ten West title and earn a trip to Indianapolis.
“The ability to finish is what gives you the opportunity to be elite,” Andersen said. “That’s where we’re at the last three games.”