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4 observations after rewatching Wisconsin football's win over Nebraska

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University of Wisconsin football players understood that Saturday’s 35-28 win over Nebraska was an eye-opening experience for both sides of the ball.

It cemented the breakout season of freshman running back Braelon Allen, showed that the UW offense could put up points and respond in pressure-packed moments, and that the Badgers (8-3, 6-2) could still win when the defense was less than stellar.

Some of the finer points of the Badgers’ victory — UW pushed its win streak to seven, the program’s longest since 2017 — required another viewing to understand. Before all eyes turn to the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe and UW’s quest to win the Big Ten West for the third time in five years, here are four observations from the Badgers’ win over Nebraska.

1. Interior blocking strong again

The UW offensive line has evolved as the season has run its course, and the current version is doing a wider variety of things better right now than it has all year.

Perhaps the most intriguing development over the past three weeks that was on display against Nebraska was the pin-and-pull techniques the Badgers are using up front. The best example of this was on Braelon Allen’s winning 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Tanor Bortolini — a tackle playing like a tight end who was used on 14 snaps — and tight end Jack Eschenbach bury the defensive end and the backside linebacker to allow right tackle Logan Bruss and center Joe Tippmann to pull around the edge. Bruss kicks out linebacker Blaise Gunderson, then Tippmann engages with inside linebacker Luke Reimer about 4 yards down field.

By the time Braelon Allen has throttled up to full speed, he’s got a lane to the third level of the defense.

It wasn’t a perfect day for UW’s offensive line, as it allowed a sack and got stuffed on a fourth-and-1 in the second half, but for the majority of the game it was passing off bodies in the run game and finishing blocks with authority. This group’s step forward this season is as important to the team’s winning as the impact of Allen.

2. Best quarter of the season for offense

In the third quarter against the Cornhuskers, UW ran 12 plays and scored 14 points.

The first drive — a four-play scoring march of 33 yards — was set up by Collin Wilder’s interception and return into Nebraska territory. But UW’s offense finished the job with a quick drive, highlighted by two accurate passes from quarterback Graham Mertz. The first was a short pass over the middle to tight end Jake Ferguson, who shimmied by a defender to pick up a first down. The second was a strike of 13 yards to Kendric Pryor for a touchdown.

The second series saw UW get the ball back tied at 21 and use six rushing plays and two passes to move 75 yards in less than five minutes. Pryor had a catch-and-run of 28 yards to convert the quarter’s only third down and Allen’s gallop of 22 yards got UW into the red zone. Allen scored his second touchdown of the afternoon after three rushes inside the 10.

UW’s offense was efficient, avoided third downs and let the running game set up the passing attack. It was exactly what the Badgers wanted, and it’s the kind of quarters they need to string together the next two weeks to threaten for a surprise Big Ten title.

3. Quiet OLBs by design

Nebraska offensive tackles Turner Corcoran and Bryce Benhart have struggled throughout the season, so it was reasonable to expect UW outside linebackers Noah Burks and Nick Herbig to have active days in the backfield. But after studying how they played against the Huskers, it was clear their assignment wasn’t to be the potential game-altering forces off the edge they’ve shown they can be.

Both Burks and Herbig were more cautious with how they rushed Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, serving as contain players while the inside linebackers were tasked with blitzing frequently. Burks and Herbig combined for 11 tackles, seven by Herbig, but only one for a loss, also by Herbig. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard sacrificed some pass-rush for protection from Martinez scrambling around the edge, and that trade-off worked to contain Martinez’s rushing ability, but he threw for more yards against UW than any opposing quarterback this season.

Against Minnesota next week, expect to see the outside linebackers crashing down the line after a week of setting the edge and forcing things inside.

4. Not a ‘blueprint game’

Since Leonhard took over as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator, his units have allowed an average of 462 yards per game to Nebraska. His defenses have allowed an average of 268.4 yards to all other opponents. Yes, that second number includes nonconference Group of Five games that help decrease it, but the point remains: Nebraska’s a thorn in Leonhard’s side, and this game doesn’t “expose” UW’s defense.

Some of what the Huskers did needs to be addressed in UW’s defense scheme — especially the delayed releases by tight ends, because those are easy enough to add to an offense. Those plays gave up first downs too often and kept the defense on the field. But a lot of what Nebraska did was simply the right call or the right matchup at the right time.

Concerns of UW’s corners against good receivers are legitimate, but those corners also shut down David Bell against Purdue. Worry about the secondary handling tight ends, sure, but how many sacks have been created because a Badgers inside linebacker took the risk of giving up a short pass to a tight end and went on a blitz?

The aggressiveness with which the UW defense plays is inherently risky, but the rewards are also high. The Huskers did just about everything right, protecting their quarterback, getting chunk plays and staying out of third-and-long for the most part. They did just enough to come up a couple of plays short against a defense that was having an off day, but still created two turnovers.


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