by Rexford Shield
The stage is set for the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game and once again will feature a regular season re-match. It still is too good to be true that a 7-5 team has the possibility of making it to Pasadena but nonetheless Wisconsin (4-4 Big Ten, 7-5 Overall) is one game away from clinching their third-straight trip to the Rose Bowl, which has hasn't been done since Michigan won three straight from 1976-1978.
However, Nebraska (7-1 Big Ten, 10-2 Overall) is playing their best football the second half of the season after getting stomped by the Buckeyes, allowing a whopping 63 points in the process. To get a better look at each position that will be on display Saturday, here are the positional breakdowns for the Cornhuskers and Badgers
Taylor Martinez - Nebraska
The first-team conference selection and leader of the Big Ten's best offense may be playing the best football of his career with a consistent passing game complementing his playmaking ability with his feet. The junior dual-threat gunslinger has passed for 2,483 yards with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions to go along with 1,065 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
Martinez was held in check for the first half against the Badgers in their September 29th matchup but ran wild in the second half, including a long touchdown run where he practically went untouched, en route to a 17-point comeback and 30-27 victory. If Wisconsin can keep Martinez in the pocket and force him to “skip rocks” Wisconsin stands a chance against the dangerous Martinez. If not, it could be a long, long game.
Curt Phillips - Wisconsin
I advocated for Phillips in my previous article and he has performed as I expected. He has been nothing out of the ordinary, completing 52.6% of his passes (that percentage is a little deceiving due to multiple drops by receivers) for 386 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. By far the best part of his game has been his handling of the fourth quarter two-minute drill in back-to-back games, leading the offense to game-tying drives.
I fully expect Nebraska to stack the box as they did in the first matchup. If the Badgers are going to come away victorious, offensive coordinator Matt Canada will have to open up the playbook with Phillips and give him the opportunity to make plays. All in all, he simply needs to be another game manager Saturday who keeps the Huskers honest on defense.
Rex Burkhead, Ameer Abdullah - Nebraska
While Burkhead was sidelined with a lingering knee injury, Ameer Abdullah was the feature back for the Cornhuskers and has rushed for team-leading 1,127 and eight touchdowns. With Burkhead fully healthy this weekend, expect a full-dosage of both backs, as they can both pose problems for the Badgers front seven. Burkhead is more of a powerful and traditional I-formation back, much like Penn State's Zach Zwinak who ran all over the Badgers last weekend. Abdullah is the speedster who can run effectively outside the tackles.
Both of these backs had success against the Badgers, as Burkhead rushed 18 times for 87 yards with a touchdown while Abdullah rushed 10 times for 70 yards. And did I mention Burkhead has a great first name?
Montee Ball, James White, Melvin Gordon - Wisconsin
This group has been driving the offense this season but their up-and-down productivity stands out. In the team's seven wins, the backs have accumulated 2,078 yards (an average of 296.9 yards/game), 24 touchdowns (average of 3.4/game) and 5.83 yards per carry. In the five losses, they accumulated a mere 474 yards (94.8 yards/game), five touchdowns and 2.16 yards per carry.
It's clearly evident that when this group is on top of their game, they are practically unstoppable. However, when defenses adjust to the one-dimensional offense, they have been a no-show, especially against Michigan State and Nebraska. This group will have to perform at a high level that was achieved in their victories if Wisconsin hopes to come out victorious.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Generally, a quarterback's success is aided by the number of weapons that are at his disposal at the wide receiver position and this holds true for the Cornhuskers. The group is led by Big Ten second-team selection Kenny Bell, who has caught 44 passes for 789 yards with eight touchdowns and will most likely be lined up against cornerback Devin Smith.
The other starting wideout, Quincy Enunwa, has registered 408 yards with one score. This group's depth is evident as you go down the depth chart as Jamal Turner and Kyler Reed have both registered at least 300 yards receiving not to mention tight end Ben Cotton is tied for second on the team with two touchdown receptions.
This unit had quite a bit of success in the first matchup on short, quick throws due to a comfortable cushion from the cornerbacks. I would not expect anything less this weekend.
Traditionally, the Wisconsin offense has boasted a stud tight end and one or two reliable receivers split out wide. That formula holds true in 2012 but only to a certain extent. While tight end Jacob Pederson has not lit up the stat book, he was still named the top tight end in the conference registering four touchdown grabs, including the game-tying score against the Buckeyes.
Jared Abbrederis, a Big Ten first-team selection, burned the Cornhuskers last time out, particularly on the deep ball, for 142 yards and one score.When he was sidelined earlier in the year with a concussion, no other receiving performed up to the level that was needed to advance the offense, shedding light on the lack of depth at the position.
The passing game will open up immensely if another threat can emerge Saturday. Who will that be? Your guess is as good as mine.
After getting downright embarrassed both as a unit and a team against Ohio State, this unit has come on strong of late, taking control of the line of scrimmage and opening up running lanes for Martinez, Burkhead and Abdullah.
When they provide adequate time for Martinez in the pocket, he is lethal and this notion held true against Wisconsin when this unit simply wore down the defensive front seven. However, this will not be the same unit that faced the Badgers, as starting center Justin Jackson will not be available due to injury. If they can withhold the pass rush, they should not skip a beat.
A direct correlation can be seen between the productivity of this unit and the running backs' productivity for obvious reasons. The lineup has been shuffled around a little bit due to the early struggles of right guard Robert Burge, who was replaced by Kyle Costigan, and the injury of Rick Wagner.
The underlying key to victory will be the play of this unit for a FULL four quarters. When they control the line of scrimmage and get a steady push upfront like they did in the first half of the Sept.29 matchup, there are gaping holes. On the flip side, when their performance is lackluster, opposing defenses have their way with this unit.
This group has returned to its traditional roots of an explosive defensive unit. While their pass defense ranks first in the country, allowing 152.2 yards through the air, they will not be tested to the extent that they have been previously. Nonetheless, they still have playmakers in the secondary with Ciante Evans and Daimon Stafford to counter the minimal passing attack of Wisconsin.
Up front, the lineup will be shuffled around due to the injury of starting defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler. Yet, they have depth at the position to overcome the loss and get good pass rush off the edge from Eric Martin not to mention Will Compton is a stud at linebacker. While they do have depth, it will be interesting to see if the Wisconsin running attack can exploit the loss of Steinkuhler.
Fans have grown accustomed to a defense that has been the team's Achilles heel. 2012 is a different year, though. This unit may be the best in the Bielema era and have placed themselves in the conference and national rankings, as they rank second in the Big Ten in rushing, allowing 111.3 yards per game and rank 11th nationally in total defense, averaging 307.92 yards per game.
Despite the fact that this unit played its worst game of the year against the Cornhuskers, they were without three key defensive players–Brendan Kelly, Pat Muldoon and Shelton Johnson. The return of these player should help in containing the playmaking ability of Martinez but the key will be the productivity of the linebackers corp of Mike Taylor, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong.
The do-it-all special teams player Brett Maher is the best in the conference and may be one of the best in the country, as he has deep range in field goal opportunities, converting a 54-yard kick earlier in the year. In the punting area, his average is respectable with an average of 41.7 yards/punt. Abdullah is an ultra dangerous punt return man for the Cornhuskers, averaging 13.1 yards per return with one touchdown.
The kick returners of Abdullah, Bell and Turner are lethal as well and it will be important for Wisconsin to stay in their lanes to avoid a big return. If the game goes down to the wire as it did in the first matchup, expect Nebraska to own the upper hand due to the experience and maturity of Maher
In the first matchup, the kickers essentially cost the team a victory, as Jack Russell missed an extra point and field goal. Without a doubt, they been the Achilles heel for the team, as coaches have lost a significant amount of trust in them each of week, causing the offense to either punt or go for it in possible field goal situations. Brad Nortman's successor Drew Meyer has performed to the level that I did not expect out of him en route to a honorable mention conference selection.
However, his hang time has not been up to par the past two weeks, especially on the punt return touchdown against the Buckeyes. Abbrederis has yet to break through on a punt return and a big return will obviously give the offense much better field position and easier real estate to work with