Rex Burkhead didn't look 100 percent last week, but he still gashed Idaho State for 119 yards on eight carries. The competition will be much more stout this weekend, as Wisconsin boasts the Big Ten's third-best rushing defense. Even if Burkhead's knee is still sore (it looks like he will be wearing the brace again), Ameer Abdullah is averaging six yards per carry and is ready to take a larger portion of the load. There will be a lot of touches for those two, leaving few opportunities for Braylon Heard and Imani Cross scarce, but both have the ability to spell NU's feature backs.
The star of the Badgers' defense is linebacker Chris Borland, who was named as the conference's Defensive Player of the Week for the fourth time in his career this past week. As good as Borland has been, it is fellow linebacker Mike Taylor who leads the team in tackles, giving UW a solid linebacking corps.
The Wisconsin defensive line doesn't feature any standouts, so if NU can get to the next level and get blockers on Borland and Taylor, there are going to be opportunities for big running plays. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck also must stay committed to the run, unlike last year, when Nebraska went pass-happy in the second half and allowed the Badgers to pull away.
NU Pass Offense vs. Wisconsin Pass Defense
Last year's game was a nightmare for Taylor Martinez who completed just half of his passes and tossed a trio of interceptions. He has looked much improved this year, but these are the games when he has to showcase his throwing ability and make David Gilbert's midweek comments look foolish.
He will have that opportunity against Wisconsin. The Badgers are allowing opponents to complete only 56 percent of their passes, but they've also given up eight touchdowns without recording a single interception. Cornerback Devin Smith and safety Dezmen Southward are a couple of players to watch in Wisconsin's back end, but the Badgers have given up more passing yards this season than all of two Big Ten teams.
Another important factor will be the growth of NU's young receiving corps. Last year's game represented the first conference game for Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner and first extended playing time for Quincy Enunwa. That trio won't have the jitters they did in 2011 and their experience and confidence could go a long way in determining the game's outcome. This also seems to be the type of game Kyler Reed could impact with a few long receptions.
Wisconsin Run Offense vs. NU Run Defense
Sure, the Huskers have looked much improved against the run over the past two weeks - but that was against Arkansas State and Idaho State. To this point, the Huskers have faced one BCS-conference rushing attack, and UCLA trampled NU on the ground. It is going to be difficult to remove that memory from everyone's mind until Nebraska proves it can slow a legitimate ground game.
And although the Badgers are not the rushing juggernaut they were a year ago, they present NU with that opportunity. Montee Ball is expected to be back after suffering a concussion last week, but it is uncertain how heavily Wisconsin will lean on him. Even if he is not in top form, backups James White and Melvin Gordon are dynamic options out of the backfield.
This match-up is the unstoppable force against the immovable object argument, only the exact opposite. Wisconsin ranks 11th in the league in rushing offense, the same rank as the Huskers for rushing defense. Something has to give here, and it's easier to side with the Badgers, who had a stout running attack as recently as last year. The Huskers have talked a lot about their improvement in this area - now it's time to prove it.
Wisconsin Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense
Last year, transfer quarterback Russell Wilson tore up Nebraska and the rest of the Big Ten along the way to a conference title and an appearance in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers tried the same formula this year, bringing in Maryland's Danny O'Brien, but there have been very different results. O'Brien started three games but has been benched in favor of redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who will be making his first road start on Saturday.
Expect the Huskers to try and give Stave a rude introduction, unleashing Eric Martin and a series of blitzes on the neophyte passer. Nebraska's cornerbacks have been sticky in coverage this year, which shoudl allow defensive coordinator John Papuchis to send some extra bodies at Stave. NU has just three interceptions, however - forcing Stave into a few mistakes could dent his confidence early.
Further helping the Huskers, the Badgers haven't established any kind of real receiving threat outside Jared Abbrederis. Abbrederis is one of the Big Ten's best, but Nebraska should be able to rotate its deep stable of cornerbacks on the junior to try and wear him out.
Special Teams, What If's and The X-Factor
Just when it looked like Brett Maher had solved his baffling senior woes, he missed a field goal (though to be fair, it was a 51-yarder) and averaged just 34.5 yards on two punts last week. In a game where field position could play a key role, Maher simply has to be better.
An added benefit of getting Burkhead back is that the Huskers can feel more comfortable using Abdullah on special teams, where already shined as a punt returner this year. But now Abdullah believes he will get a shot to return kicks as well, something he did with great skill last year. Even if NU doesn't use him deep, Bell leads the conference in kick return average.
Wisconsin is pretty ordinary on special teams. Both return units are solid but unspectacular and kicker Kyle French has attempted only four field goals (making three), so it's tough to judge his ability yet. Where the Badgers excel is on their coverage units, where they lead the Big Ten in kickoff average and are fourth in net punting.
Nebraska Will Win If:
It sticks to the ground game and doesn't turn the ball over. Martinez will get his opportunities, but NU is best served if it hits Wisconsin early and often with its quartet of running backs and breaks the Badgers' will early on.
Wisconsin Will Win If:
It can turn this year's game into a mirror image of last season's match-up. That will be difficult without Wilson, but the Badgers forced NU into turnovers and penalties in 2011. If it follows that formula and rediscovers its vaunted rushing attack, Wisconsin will likely leave Lincoln victorious.
Abdullah. With his ability to break a game open on both offense and special teams, few other players in this game will have as many opportunities to impact the game that he does. A few long returns and runs could not only help win the field-position battle, but also set up NU for a couple of easy scores.