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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

A Mighty Showdown in Madison

Madison hasn’t served as host to two top 10 teams since 1962. Wisconsin hasn’t landed this sort of quarterback play since, well, ever. The Badgers have been this potent on the ground in the past, but never with such a duo; typically, Wisconsin calls one back’s number over and over again rather than share the wealth. Nebraska hasn’t played defense like this since 2008, Bo Pelini’s first season. The Cornhuskers haven’t been this potent offensively since that same year, if not since Eric Crouch was under center. The two teams haven’t met since 1974, when the Badgers won at home, and haven’t spent much time in the same stratosphere until the last generation, when Wisconsin found its groove under Barry Alvarez. Alvarez, by the way, played football at Nebraska.

Wisconsin hasn’t played anyone of consequence, but the secret’s out: the Badgers are good. Very good, potentially great, but I’ll hold off on the latter superlative until I see Wisconsin take on a genuine contender. The Badgers get that chance on Saturday against Nebraska. Wisconsin isn’t just very good should it beat the Cornhuskers — the Badgers will be a very good team with a very clear path to 12-0. Think of that as the carrot dangling at the end of the stick, though I hope the Badgers aren’t looking too far ahead.

If we know nothing else about Wisconsin, it’s that the Badgers have a plan offensively: it’s going to be a steady ground game that feeds into a play-action passing game, which has been thus far run to perfection.

Wisconsin is simple, but don’t mistake simplicity with blandness. The offense doesn’t do anything spectacular, but then you look up at the scoreboard and it’s 28-0 early in the second quarter. The offensive line has continued to dominate the line of scrimmage. Believe it or not — and it seems hard to believe in hindsight — the line was a bit of a question mark heading into the year.

Wisconsin is still waiting for right tackle Josh Oglesby to break out. He’s been stymied by a knee injury, one that forced redshirt freshman Rob Havenstein into the starting lineup, yet the Badgers haven’t missed a beat. Everything is coming up roses: Montee Ball and James White have been outstanding, the offensive line has been punishing and Russell Wilson has been absolutely superb.

Wilson’s so good that you forget how long he’s been in town: it’s been about 60 days since fall camp kicked off, which belies how quickly — and with what ease — Wilson has grasped Wisconsin’s system. He’s looked like a multiple-year veteran in this system, which is a credit to Wilson’s mental and physical acuity and Wisconsin’s friendly system.

In the former, N.C. State’s former starter — I’m still shaking my head — has flashed a skill set perfectly suited to this offense: accurate short, wonderful outside the pocket, knowledgeable on play-action and dangerous when tucking the ball away, Wilson has exceeded the expectations accompanying his arrival.

In the latter, Wilson has had the good fortune to play in an offense that can actually run the ball with consistency. Forget consistency; Wisconsin pounds away nearly at will on the opposition, developing momentum and a tempo in advance of the inevitable big play in the passing game.

Nebraska also has an identity, but unlike the Badgers, the Cornhuskers are in trouble on clear passing downs. Taylor Martinez has improved; don’t pay attention to the doubters that call for Nebraska to make a change at the position. As a runner, he remains nearly in class by himself: it’s Martinez and Denard Robinson atop the heap. And he’s made some strides as a passer, particularly in his in-play progressions. This was a major issue a year ago.

Last year, Martinez would make one — at most two — reads before tucking the ball away. That might have led to a bit more production on the ground, but it is also partly the reason why he suffered so many dings and bruises down the stretch. His improvement as a passer has Nebraska calling his number more often: after making 20 or more attempts only three times in 2010, Martinez has made at least 21 in each of Nebraska’s first four games.

And the Nebraska defense: it’s clear that the Cornhuskers have missed cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. He’s back this week after missing almost all of September, as is defensive tackle Jared Crick, who sat out last Saturday’s win over Wyoming. The defense hasn’t been up to the Pelini caliber; will returning Dennard lift the Cornhuskers back into the national elite? It’s a start, but I worry about Nebraska’s ability to hang with an offense that hit the ground running against U.N.L.V. and hasn’t slowed since.

It’ll be the game’s deciding factor: either Nebraska regains its stride on defense or it falls under Wisconsin’s barrage. And like the Cornhuskers, Wisconsin has its concerns about staying in front of Nebraska’s offensive speed — led by Martinez, who can be a game-changer. The Badgers have no questions offensively. When it comes to Wilson, as noted, you couldn’t have drawn up a more perfect relationship, at least through September.

All relationships are rosy through the first month. It’s when the honeymoon period ends — when South Dakota turns into Nebraska — that a relationship is really tested. The pairing of Wilson and Wisconsin will be defined by what happens on Saturday; Wisconsin’s season will be defined by Saturday night.

And Nebraska? The Cornhuskers have done two things awfully well since Pelini was hired in 2008: one, play well on the road, and two, play well as the underdog. Nebraska’s not a decided underdog against the Badgers, but the Badgers are certainly favored — seems like most expect a seven-point win for Wisconsin, perhaps a bit more.

I don’t think Nebraska’s bristling at the idea of being the underdog, seeing that Pelini himself has said how disappointed he has been in the play of his defense. But it’s the offense that’s going to win or lose this game for the Cornhuskers, seeing that even if the defense returns to form there’s no way Nebraska completely bottles up Wilson, the running back duo and this offensive line. And the Badgers? They’ll be tested by an offense that has done a nice job alternating a traditional, punishing running game with one that spreads the field from sideline to sideline.

So prepare for scoring. And prepare for two teams with the knowledge that comes with experience, talent and coaching: Nebraska knows what it does well, knows what it lacks; Wisconsin knows it does well, knows what it lacks; and both know what the other wants to do over 60 minutes. That’s the hallmark of a great game, I suppose — on paper, at least. Did I mention there’s a potential national title berth on the line?

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  1. WYHusk says:

    Who are these “doubters” calling for Tmart’s removal? I’ve never heard anyone say that. We sure don’t have anyone who could do the job at present.

  2. Greg says:

    pretty sure there was a lot of people that wnated tmart replaced by carnes during spring/summer. tmart has just made thos people shut up.

  3. WYHusk says:

    Hmm. I guess the possibility might have been vetted after the spring game on the message boards, but I don’t think any serious observer thought someone was going to take Tmart’s job short of an injury.

  4. mike says:

    “He’s back this week after missing almost all of September, as is defensive tackle Jared Crick, who sat out Saturday’s win over Wisconsin.”

    …You’ve cursed us Paul…

    Paul: Ha! What a mistake. Or, if it comes to pass, an incredible bit of prediction. Obviously meant Wyoming. Close enough to Wisconsin where it can be excused. Sort of.

  5. CarlBugeater says:

    Paul, we oftentimes get a prediction from you. Would you like to throw us fans a bone on this backyard dogfight?

  6. Joel D says:

    As we Huskers fans found out last year, it’s really hard to beat the same team two years in a row. For this reason, and because there’s such a good chance that the Huskers will see the Badgers again in the title game, I’m almost tempted to hope that the Badgers win this game, so that Nebraska has the revenge factor going into the title game (should they make it that far, of course). What do you think, Paul? Is it possible to reverse-hex your team to glory, or have I gone insane?

  7. Joel D says:

    oops, I didn’t mean two years in a row … I meant twice in the same year.

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