At first glance, the Nebraska Cornhuskers look like they shouldn’t need to break a sweat to win the Big Ten championship game over the Wisconsin Badgers. After all, Nebraska is 10-2 and ranked 12th in the country, while the unranked Badgers are a mere 7-5 (4-4 in conference play).
However, Wisconsin came perilously close to upsetting the Huskers on their home field, losing in Lincoln only after a 17-point Nebraska comeback, and only by a three-point margin. In neutral Indianapolis, Bret Bielema’s team has a real chance to pull the upset and advance to a BCS bowl.
Here are five keys for Wisconsin if it hopes to come out on top at Lucas Oil Stadium:
1. Trust Montee Ball
Ball is the heart and soul of the Wisconsin offense, having rushed for more yards (1,528) than any Badger quarterback has thrown for this year. In the first meeting with the Huskers, though, he had a rough second half capped by a midfield fumble that sealed the Nebraska win.
For all that Ball totaled a pedestrian 93 yards in that earlier defeat, Wisconsin can’t afford to go away from the offensive game that got them to Indianapolis. Ball, who hadn’t lost a single fumble in his career before this season, is as reliable and talented an option as the Badgers have.
2. Make Taylor Martinez win with his arm
When these two teams met in September, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez was an adequate passer, totaling 181 yards and two touchdowns. He was also the best rusher on the field, racking up 107 yards on just 13 carries and adding another score on the ground.
Martinez’s passing is far better than it was a year ago, but he still loses most of his luster when he can’t tear up the defense with his legs. He managed just 6.2 yards per pass attempt against this defense in his first outing, and a similarly unimpressive showing in Indy will keep Wisconsin in the game.
3. Get at least one explosive play from Jared Abbrederis
Ball grinds out yardage for the Badgers possession after possession, but when they need to bite off a big chunk of the field, they look to junior Jared Abbrederis. The wideout is averaging a career-high 17.4 yards per catch, and he’s scored five touchdowns on the season in spite of some serious instability under center.
Abbrederis hasn’t been returning punts as often as he did a season ago, but don’t count out the possibility of him breaking off a long gainer there, either. Whether on special teams or from scrimmge, Abbrederis must shorten the field for his offense by stinging Nebraska for a 30-plus yard pickup, because no one else in a Badger uniform is likely to do it.
4. Hold onto the ball at all costs
Wisconsin’s offense is on its third quarterback of the season in senior Curt Phillips. With one of the nation’s worst passing attacks (112th in FBS), the Badgers are in no position to trade scores with the explosive Martinez and his mates.
As such, even a single turnover by Wisconsin could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Phillips threw his first interception of the year last week, and Ball is similarly sure-handed as a runner, but Saturday’s big stage is not the place to slip up.
5. Leave the last two weeks in the past
The Badgers enter the title game with an enormous amount of momentum, all of it bad. They’ve lost two straight overtime games, botching a chance for a late score in regulation in the first contest and squandering such a touchdown in the second.
If Saturday’s game is another nail-biter—as it easily could be—Wisconsin has to avoid the natural tendency to tighten up in crunch time. If they start thinking about the ways they lost to Ohio State and Penn State, they’ll virtually ensure a third straight defeat by the Huskers.