Nebraska football: 5 expectations for the Wisconsin game
Following reports that Wisconsin redshirt freshman starting quarterback Graham Mertz is out after testing positive twice for the coronavirus, Nebraska’s game with the Badgers this Saturday just became more interesting.
The quarterback issues don’t stop there. Mertz’s backup, third-stringer Chase Wolf, also tested positive once, and his availability for this week’s game is up in the air. Next up would be fourth-string quarterback Danny Vanden Boom, a redshirt junior who has 1 career completion for a 3-yard touchdown — which came in 2018.
How does this impact the Wisconsin offense, and what does it mean for Nebraska?
We know how Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst wants to play. He wants to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball with heavy personnel — fullbacks and tight ends. With the top two healthy options at quarterback potentially out, will Chryst be inclined to lean on his giant offensive line and stable of running backs — Nakia Watson, Garrett Groshek and Isaac Guerendo — even more than usual?
To help answer that, look at the recent history between these teams.
Wisconsin has beaten Nebraska in seven straight games. During that stretch, the Badgers have averaged 361 rushing yards per game on 45 carries — a whopping 8.0 yards per carry for the boys from Madison.
Simply put, the quarterback is not always the most important piece to a Wisconsin offense. Instead, it’s the O-line and running backs.
Saturday’s game was always going to be a war in the trenches, because that’s where Wisconsin wants to fight. But if the Badgers are down to their fourth-string quarterback, I’m guessing Chryst will want to control the ball, pound the Nebraska defense with around 45 rushing attempts and play it safe with whoever is under center.
Nebraska has a great opportunity in front of them. Whatever you think of a 35-point loss, fans can’t deny that there was progress shown from the Huskers against Ohio State, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. Those units came to play against the Buckeyes, the best team in the B1G.
But Wisconsin has owned this series recently. For the Huskers to keep improving, they need to show it against opponents in their own division. Here are five expectations for Nebraska’s game with Wisconsin.
The D-line fought like heck against the Buckeyes; it needs to do it again
The Ohio State game is hard to judge for Huskers fans. How much stock do you put in it? After all, the Buckeyes are an elite team, a College Football Playoff contender and simply on a different level than Nebraska.
But Wisconsin? Wisconsin is a winnable game — all the contests against West Division teams will be.
Nebraska’s front seven showed they can physically match up with Ohio State’s offensive line. Ben Stille, Casey Rogers and Ty Robinson all played well, for the most part. Those guys will need to bring it once again against the Badgers, who annually have nasty butt-kickers up front.
Dedrick Mills — give him more than 9 carries
Nebraska’s senior starting running back had only 9 carries against Ohio State and was not a factor.
Coming into the season, the coaches called Mills, a 5-foot-11, 220-pound bruiser, a workhorse. Workhorses get more than 9 touches in a game.
Yes, it was the season opener, so there are going to be more opportunities for Mills. Yes, maybe the coaches didn’t want to use him as much in a game they likely weren’t winning anyway, because after all, an all-B1G schedule can be brutal on a running back’s body. And, yeah, quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey are exciting in the run game (and when they hold on to the ball).
But this should be a Dedrick Mills game. His best outing last year came against the Badgers, when he racked up a season-high 188 yards and 1 touchdown on 17 carries. He gashed Wisconsin. He can do it again, especially behind an offensive line that showed improvement last week, too.
The freshmen receivers — let’s see ’em
Scott Frost and his coaching staff know what they’re doing, so there has to be good reason why some of these highly-touted freshmen receivers didn’t see the field until garbage time against Ohio State.
I’m talking guys like Omaha product Zavier Betts; the speedster from Miami, Marcus Fleming; and Alante Brown. Brown, a dynamic player similar to Wan’Dale Robinson, had 1 catch for 16 yards late in the fourth quarter, and that catch had to get fans excited as he showed off a quick-twitch juke.
Frost and his staff always harp on perimeter blocking — and it makes sense. If the offense doesn’t get it, it’s harder to turn a good gain into a big one. So maybe these new kids aren’t quite as good as some of the older wideouts at blocking yet, or at simply knowing the playbook.
But something needs to happen with the passing game.
Defenses are going to key on stopping Robinson until another receiver steps up. I’m no coach, but would it hurt to insert Fleming here and there and tell him to run a post once in a while? Heck, maybe someone blows an assignment and he gets behind a defense.
Maybe it wasn’t the coaching staff’s game plan to take downfield shots against Ohio State. Maybe the coaches know it doesn’t have a downfield threat to begin with. Junior college transfer Omar Manning, a large and fast target at 6-4 and 225, was supposed to be a guy to fill that void, but he didn’t make the trip to Columbus, and his status for this Saturday remains up in the air.
It’s hard to expect anything from Manning, though. He’s still new to the program and trying to get healthy. Do we even know what we have with him yet?
Damion Daniels — this is your time to shine
Another D-lineman who should get more playing time than he did against the Buckeyes’ spread offense is the 6-3, 335-pound nose tackle Daniels.
It looks like Daniels’ strong suit isn’t playing against spread offenses, which is understandable. But Saturday’s game, which will be full of Wisconsin tight ends and fullbacks, should cater to Daniels’ skill set of being a road blocker and of controlling gaps. He’s a guy who needs to hold his ground against double-teams to clear space for the linebackers — Will Honas and Collin Miller — to make stops.
Hopefully, Daniels can stay on the field for more drives than he did in last year’s game. Stamina has always been an issue with him. But the Huskers need Daniels in this one.
Make Wisconsin’s quarterback — whoever it is — win the game
This is obviously a tough one to accomplish, considering Wisconsin has won the past seven meetings behind great and mauling O-line play.
But if Nebraska’s defense can bow up and get the Badgers off schedule and into 2nd- and 3rd-and-longs, that’s a win for the Huskers. That means Wisconsin will need to rely on whoever is at quarterback, whether it’s Wolf or Vanden Boom.
It’ll be interesting to see how tight Nebraska’s coverage is on the Badgers wideouts if the inexperienced Vanden Boom is out there.
Defensive backs Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams missing the first half for targeting penalties at Ohio State hurts. So maybe, that means defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants to play it safe and keep everything in front, like they did against the Buckeyes.