How would Nebraska fans feel about a defense that could hold Wisconsin to 35 rushing yards on 23 attempts — an average of 1.5 per carry — with Badger running backs Montee Ball and James White toting the football?
That’s what Mark Banker and his Oregon State defense did to Wisconsin in 2012 in a 10-7 Oregon State victory in Corvallis.
Two days later, then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema fired his offensive line coach. The Badgers regrouped, advanced to the Big Ten Championship Game and ran 50 times for 509 yards in a 70-31 rout of Nebraska, with Ball and White each topping 200 rushing yards.
And few will forget last November’s massacre in Madison, when Melvin Gordon ran for an FBS record 408 yards, and Wisconsin ran roughshod over Nebraska for 539 yards.
That’s 1,048 rushing yards the Badgers have amassed in their last two games against Nebraska.
Now Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, Banker has retooled a defense built for stopping the run. Nebraska (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten) enters Saturday’s game against Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1) ranked No. 12 nationally in rush defense, allowing 85 yards per game.
Naysayers will point out the Huskers’ leaky pass defense — it still ranks last nationally in yards allowed per game — as a reason teams haven’t needed to rely on the run to move the ball effectively against Nebraska.
That, and Nebraska's five opponents have, by nature, been mostly pass-first teams.
“We’re going to find out how good we are at stopping the run. I think that with Wisconsin, you are really going to find that out real quick,” Nebraska walk-on linebacker Chris Weber said. “We have to continue to do the things that make us successful in the past weeks with stopping the run.”
Weber, starting at MIKE linebacker in place of injured Josh Banderas, whose return this week seems unlikely, collected 17 tackles against Illinois, a team that attempted 32 rushes for 131 yards, with 96 coming on two big plays.
“It’s a lot to do with Maliek (Collins) and Kevin (Maurice) working up front … and just being around the ball,” Weber said of his performance. “Those guys deserve just about as much as I did after watching the game.”
Big plays are the only reason Nebraska’s rush defense doesn’t have even better numbers. No team has consistently churned out 5, 6 and 7 yards a chunk against the Blackshirts.
But Wisconsin is the first team that will try.
“Our defense may be especially suited for this type of offense,” defensive end Jack Gangwish said. “Wisconsin has a very smash-mouth approach to football. They’re going to run the ball straight at you. There’s not a whole lot that’s really fancy about what they do. They’re a good team. They do what they do really well.”
In fact, Banker said the Badgers will run the same play 70 percent of the time.
“They want to run straight downhill on you, out-physical you, get you leaning downhill and all of the sudden come with big play-action," Banker said.
That’s really no different from past Wisconsin teams against Nebraska, The Badgers relied on the jet sweep repeatedly in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game and the power running game with Gordon last season.
Yet, Nebraska couldn’t stop the same play over and over, rendering the Badgers’ passing game meaningless.
“They’re going to keep pounding it and pounding it, even when they’re not having success, knowing they’re going to try to wear us down,” Nebraska linebackers coach Trent Bray said. “We’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to be downhill when we’re supposed to and we have to consistently, time in and time out, fit the way we’re supposed to.”
Gordon is in the NFL and his replacement, Corey Clement, is sidelined while recovering from sports hernia surgery. Without Clement, Wisconsin has split carries between redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal and junior Dare Ogunbowale, who’ve combined for 658 rushing yards on 136 carries, or 4.8 per carry.
“Wisconsin’s always going to have good running backs,” Bray said. “They’re deep at that position. They’ve got a couple of guys with some size and another guy with some speed off the edge, so they have good backs. Wisconsin’s not short on talent.”
Bray is also preaching to his team the important of recognizing Wisconsin’s pre-snap shifts and motions — much of it window dressing, but it caused problems for Nebraska in past meetings.
“You’ve got to expect it,” Bray said. “That’s what we spent a lot of time on today, is don’t let it be distracting. Know it’s going to happen, be ready for it, get set and see what you’re supposed to see.”