LINCOLN — It’s the elephant in the room, the question hanging over No. 7 Nebraska’s trip to No. 11 Wisconsin. The riddle that offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has to solve.
How does Nebraska’s offense — often sluggish in wins over Illinois, Indiana and Purdue — produce yards, drives and points against a Wisconsin defense that doesn’t easily yield any of those, and will have home-field advantage to boot?
Figuring that out may be the key to the Huskers extending their unbeaten season and staying in the hunt for the College Football Playoff. Langsdorf expects a challenge.
“It’s not that much fun,” he said. “They’re very good. They’re very well-coached.”
Said running backs coach Reggie Davis: “It’s a stingy defense — the whole defense.”
Wisconsin’s spirited quartet of Big Ten performances against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa is proof of that. So are the season numbers.
The Badgers allow just 300.6 yards and 14.3 points per game. Opponents convert just 24.7 percent of their third downs. When opponents reach the red zone — which has happened only 19 times — they have scored just seven touchdowns. Opponents have only five runs of 20 or more yards, and two of 30 or more.
Most of all, their style of play — spanning several coordinators — has consistently been suffocating to Nebraska’s offense.
Even when the Huskers have scored points against the Badgers — 30 and 31 in two 2012 games, and 24 in 2014 — it has generally come at a significant cost. NU has 14 turnovers in five games against Wisconsin. The 59-24 loss in 2014 was one of the Huskers’ most anemic offensive performances in recent history, as NU gained 180 yards and had five turnovers. That included four lost fumbles in the swirling snow of Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin’s 3-4 scheme — now coordinated by Justin Wilcox, an experienced Pac-12 defensive coordinator previous to this season — is designed to hem in the quarterback run game that Nebraska likes to use when its bread-and-butter inside zone plays aren’t clicking. Langsdorf said Wisconsin’s linebackers play “outside in” and have good speed and agility to “keep the quarterback in a tight window and then rally to the ball.”
“That’s the challenge,” Langsdorf said. “How much can you spread them out?”
Ohio State certainly tried in its 30-23 overtime win, with quarterback J.T. Barrett carrying the ball 21 times for 92 yards. Some of his best runs were right up in the middle, though, on inverted read plays in which the back swept to the outside while Barrett attacked the middle of the Badgers’ defense. Nebraska hasn’t shown much of that play this season, although it used to often when Tim Beck, now Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach, coordinated the Husker offense.
The Badgers can rotate several players at outside linebacker, but they just got back their best overall athlete, Vince Biegel, from injury. Their outside ’backers make it hard for quarterbacks to scramble outside the pocket. For OSU’s Barrett, that was OK — he tends to step up into pressure, even as the pocket collapses.
As Husker fans know, Tommy Armstrong prefers to scramble outside the hash marks. Thus far, he typically has evaded sacks — NU has allowed just five this season — but the Badgers’ scheme won’t make it easy on him.
Armstrong has already struggled in two losses to Wisconsin, running 28 times for 67 yards and completing just 17 of 46 passes for 191 yards.
Wilcox — who faced Langsdorf in the Pac-12 — also likes to bring quarterback pressure from various angles. He’s particularly fond of blitzing his two middle linebackers, sometimes having them cross each other as they blitz.
Nebraska’s offensive linemen have said they consistently struggle with that kind of blitz. They also have said they don’t handle movement from the defensive line well. Langsdorf agreed that it’s been “challenging.”
“So we have to make sure, and get ready to go, and be able to anticipate it,” Langsdorf said. “And get to the second level.”
In general, Langsdorf said, the line has to create “seams” in the defense for running backs.
“You have to move that nose tackle to create some holes and then you’re going to have to hold off the ends,” Langsdorf said.
Wisconsin’s pass defense can play several coverages, but its man-to-man has been effective in previous years against Nebraska. The Husker receiving corps — which got back Jordan Westerkamp after he missed two games with a back injury — may be NU’s deepest, most experienced unit. Receivers bailed out Nebraska’s shoddy run game with several big third-down grabs against Purdue.
“I like our receivers against anybody we play,” coach Mike Riley said.
Westerkamp hasn’t been much of a factor in two previous Wisconsin meetings. He has three catches for 23 yards those games. At times, the Badgers have stationed their best corner on Westerkamp instead of an outside receiver.
Winning one-on-one battles is “huge” against Wisconsin, Westerkamp said.
“It’s game-changing plays,” he said. “Especially when you see man-to-man coverage. We’re expected as wide receivers to win. That’s huge for us, huge for the success of this offense.”
Another facet to watch: Nebraska’s running backs catching passes. Both OSU’s Curtis Samuel (six catches, 58 yards) and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley (seven catches, 72 yards) had success against Wisconsin’s defense — even if Iowa never found the end zone.
Davis, NU’s running backs coach, was mum on whether he thought Nebraska could have similar success.
“I’m not giving away any game plan secrets or anything like that, but we feel like we have a good game plan,” Davis said. “We’ll utilize everybody that’s out there, no doubt about that.”