LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – Nebraska heads into its most important game to date facing two obstacles.
The first is 22nd-ranked Wisconsin, which enters Saturday’s matchup in a three-way tie with the Cornhuskers and Minnesota atop the Big Ten West.
The second is a maddening history of struggling on the road against ranked opponents under coach Bo Pelini.
The No. 11 Cornhuskers (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) have lost four of their last five on the road against Top 25 teams. Since Pelini took over in 2008, the Huskers are 3-8 in those games.
”It’s hard to win on the road against good football teams and tough environments,” Pelini said. ”I know that those last five games won’t have anything to do with what happens Saturday. The team that executes the best is going to win.”
Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah are the headline acts, that is assuming Abdullah plays. Abdullah, who injured his knee in a Nov. 1 win over Purdue, made it through Tuesday’s practice wearing a brace on his left knee.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Abdullah participated in all drills Tuesday and ”looked pretty good.”
While Abdullah leads the country with 187.9 all-purpose yards per game, Gordon is the nation’s top rusher with 166.8 yards per game. The friendly footrace on the rushing charts between those Heisman Trophy contenders would alone make for a compelling story line.
But this game has much broader implications. The winner gets an edge in claiming the division title and the trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship game.
This is exactly the position that Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1) was hoping to be in despite losing to Northwestern 20-14 on Oct. 4. Since then, the Badgers have won four straight by double digits.
The running game is rolling and the nation’s top-ranked defense just keeps getting better heading into this showdown with the Cornhuskers.
”It’s going to be a great environment for us,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. ”It’s the only game that matters. A lot of that is coach-talk, but it’s really true.”
Nebraska has played only one Top 25 road game this season, and was down 24 points in the fourth quarter to Michigan State before closing to within 27-22. Each of the Huskers’ previous three Top 25 road losses was by at least 25 points. The one win in that five-game stretch was 17-14 at Penn State in 2011.
Overall Nebraska is 21-10 on the road under Pelini, a .677 winning percentage that’s 11th-best in the Bowl Subdivision, according to STATS.
Safety Corey Cooper said he can’t figure out why the Huskers have wilted in the biggest road games.
”It comes down to us showing up ready to play,” he said. ”It doesn’t matter if we’re home or away. It’s just a decision we have to make, to come out there and execute and be the more physical team.”
Cooper was encouraged by the fourth-quarter comeback bid at Michigan State last month.
”We got down and we didn’t give up. We kept fighting,” he said. ”I can’t explain why we start slow sometimes. We can’t afford that this weekend.”
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Wisconsin has come to symbolize the Huskers’ road woes.
The Badgers won the Huskers’ inaugural Big Ten game 48-17 in Madison in a meeting of top-10 teams in 2011. The Huskers won 30-27 in Lincoln in 2012 but two months later lost 70-31 to an unranked Badgers team at the neutral-site conference championship game. Saturday marks the first meeting since that night in Indianapolis.
”You have that in the back of your mind,” said offensive lineman Jake Cotton, who was a backup in 2012. ”This is a different team, they’re a different team. We’re going to play the 2014 Wisconsin Badgers and try to get a win up there.”
Considering the upsets that happen every week in college football, Pelini said, it would be foolish to put more weight on one game than another.
”Every game is the same magnitude as far as I’m concerned,” he said. ”I don’t buy into `this is a big game, this isn’t a big game.’ There are no games that are bigger than the next. This happens to be the next one against a tough opponent, in their stadium, but our approach won’t be any different.”
Cooper sees things differently.
”This game is huge,” he said. ”To get to where we want to go, we can’t afford any losses pretty much. It’s pretty much the biggest game of the season.”
This will be Wisconsin’s biggest home game under Andersen since he took over here in 2013, though the even-keeled coach himself would rather not get involved in such talk.
”We’re going to approach it exactly the same,” he said.
It is a sound plan given the overwhelmingly positive results of late. The two-quarterback system with starter Joel Stave and mobile, change-of-pace junior Tanner McEvoy is finally gaining traction to balance the offense.
Until last week, the Badgers alternated Stave and McEvoy by series, with Stave getting the majority of playing time. But in last week’s 34-16 win over Purdue, Stave and McEvoy alternated at times by play.
Stave still saw the majority of snaps, but the system worked with Stave going 19 of 29 for 219 yards with two touchdowns, and McEvoy running for a 13-yard score.
”Just the flexibility within the offense is huge for us,” Andersen said.
But make no mistake – all eyes at Camp Randall on Saturday will be on the highly anticipated duel between Gordon and Abdullah. Gordon is pretty sure each team’s defense is already a little annoyed by all the Heisman hype.
”And they’re going to be tired of hearing it come Saturday,” Gordon said. ”They’re going to be ready to shut both of us down. Me and him, we’re going to have to run hard – one cut and go.”
Only the Badgers defense would rather throw up a roadblock to Abdullah.