The Sports Xchange
College football was made for games such as Saturday night’s matchup between No. 9 Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. A sellout string of 358 games dating to Nov. 3, 1962. The only two teams in the Big Ten West Division without a conference loss. No love lost between the two.
It’s not a much-talked about rivalry outside of Lincoln or Madison, but there is an underlying current of dislike that’s bubbling between the two.
Thanks in large part to former Cornhuskers player Barry Alvarez, who played under legendary coach Tom Osborne and then went on to be the architect of today’s Wisconsin football program, the two schools are closely linked.
“You circle Wisconsin week at the beginning of the year and you know it’s coming,” Nebraska defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said during Monday’s news conference.
The Badgers (4-0, 1-0) can put a stranglehold on the Big Ten West if they take care of business on what is expected to be a crisp autumn night. All Nebraska fans are being encouraged to wear black.
“Whenever you face an undefeated team in the West, getting that victory is kind of like getting two games,” Wisconsin outside linebacker Garret Dooley told madison.com. “Not only do they have a loss, but you also have the head-to-head win, so I think it’s definitely a big thing to get that W.”
Getting a “W” in a night game in Lincoln has been nearly impossible for opponents.
The last time the Cornhuskers lost a night game at Memorial Stadium was 2008, when No. 4 Missouri waltzed into Lincoln and walloped the Cornhuskers 52-17. Twenty straight opponents since then have left Memorial Stadium after a night game with a loss.
The Badgers, though, are a double-digit favorite to end that streak. Favorites and spreads mean nothing to the Cornhuskers’ diminutive, but powerful wide receiver and kick returner De’Mornay Pierson-El.
“I just go out there and play, man,” he told the Lincoln Journal Star. “I’m not tripping about that, I go out there and do my best. That’s all I’m worried about.”
The Cornhuskers (3-2, 2-0) seem to have recovered from a disastrous start to the season. After losing at Oregon, Nebraska was shocked at home by Northern Illinois. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired and coach Mike Riley was placed squarely on the hot seat.
Riley’s group has bounced back to beat Rutgers and Illinois -- not Big Ten powers by any means. But the defense has made huge strides under first-year defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
The Blackshirts have allowed only two offensive touchdowns in the past 14 quarters. Last week, they held Illinois to 199 yards of offense, marking the third straight game in which they’ve held opponents to fewer than 250 yards.
As early as Sunday, Riley was already fired up to face the Badgers and his good friend, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst.
He tweeted: “Love the progress made the past two weeks! Coaches and players are dialed in. Time for Wisconsin. Should be an electric atmosphere in front of the best fans in America.”
Chryst is ready for the challenge, too.
“It’s a huge game and always knew it would be,” he said. “None of what’d happened before or what happens later, none of it matters. It’s all about focusing on this week.”
The Badgers have won four in a row and five out of six against the Cornhuskers. Nebraska hasn’t forgotten what happened last year, when the Cornhuskers were ranked No. 7 with a 7-0 record ... and then lost in overtime to the Badgers. That began a spiral of six losses in nine games.
“The thing that’s evident in our history with Wisconsin is that you have to be the team that finishes,” Riley said.
And this year, Riley just might have a secret weapon to help close out a victory, provided the Cornhuskers have a lead.
Devine Ozigbo has been unstoppable the past two games for the Cornhuskers. The junior tailback has salted away both wins in the fourth quarter. Against Rutgers, he carried the ball 15 times in the fourth quarter for 66 yards, and followed that by rushing for 76 yards on 13 carries against Illinois.
Nothing is ever easy against Wisconsin. The Badgers rank in the top 10 in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense.
And while not flashy, sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook gets the job done without gaudy stats despite the Badgers averaging 40 points per game. He’s thrown nine touchdowns against three interceptions.
Dynamic freshman running back Jonathan Taylor is following in the mold of other great Wisconsin running backs such as Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball and Ron Dayne. Taylor ranks 10th nationally by averaging 129 rushing yards per game.
Hornibrook might be without one of the top tight ends in the country.
Senior Troy Fumagalli, the Badgers’ leading receiver and a preseason All-American, did not play last week against Northwestern because of a leg injury.
Nebraska might be without running back Mikale Wilbon (ankle), who has stepped in for starter Tre Bryant when he went down with a knee injury.
“Tre Bryant is not going to be ready this week and we don’t know what that means after that,” Riley said. “All we can do with Tre is hope he gets better.”