Nebraska was given a harsh introduction into the Big Ten last season when it visited Wisconsin and All-American running back Montee Ball.
In this year's conference opener, there's a chance the 22nd-ranked Cornhuskers could avoid seeing Ball on the field when they seek redemption against the visiting Badgers on Saturday night.
Nebraska was unbeaten and ranked eighth entering its first Big Ten game Oct. 1 but didn't stay that way after Ball ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-17 win for then-No. 7 Wisconsin. Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez threw a career-high three interceptions - all in a six-minute span - to help the Badgers erase an early deficit.
While Wisconsin (3-1) went on to win the inaugural Leaders division title and eventually its second straight Big Ten championship, Nebraska (3-1) would finish third in the Legends division.
"We owe these guys one," offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. "We all know it. We all know we need to play our best to beat these guys. We enter big-time play now, Big Ten play."
Nebraska's defense might have an easier time if Ball has to sit out after getting hurt in Wisconsin's 37-26 win over UTEP last Saturday. Ball, who had his first career fumble, didn't play in the second half.
It's the second head injury in less than two months for the Heisman Trophy finalist, who had an NCAA-best 1,923 yards rushing last season and has 360 this year. Ball sustained a concussion when he was attacked near campus Aug. 1.
Coach Bret Bielema was optimistic that Ball would practice this week and wasn't "overly concerned" that he would have to miss this game.
"He came back from the (injury) before the season ever started fairly quick," Bielema said. "This one on Saturday, he definitely had some symptoms a little bit but he wasn't knocked out cold or anything like that."
If Ball can't go, Bielema will likely rely on Melvin Gordon and James White again. Gordon had 112 yards and a touchdown on only eight carries against UTEP, and White rushed for 65 yards and two TDs on 15 attempts.
"I couldn't be more proud of those two guys," Bielema said. "(The) preparation they put in, the patience they showed, and then when Montee went down, they were excited about the opportunity."
Bielema's defense will try to do another superb job of limiting Martinez, who ranks first in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (180.93).
The junior has completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 878 yards, second-most in the conference. He has nine touchdown passes to one interception and has rushed for 191 yards.
Martinez has the Huskers leading the Big Ten with 48.5 points and 541.8 yards per game. However, he was limited to 3.1 yards per rush in last year's matchup with Wisconsin, well below his 5.2 career mark, as he totaled 61 on 20 carries.
The Badgers, meanwhile, will try to get another solid performance out of their quarterback, Joel Stave. The freshman replaced Danny O'Brien in the second half of a 16-14 win over Utah State on Sept. 15, then went 12 of 17 for 210 yards in his first collegiate start last Saturday and threw a touchdown to Jared Abbrederis, who had a career-best 147 receiving yards.
Stave and Abbrederis will look to find holes in a Huskers defense which had a dismal showing in its lone matchup with a major conference foe this season. Nebraska gave up 653 yards - the second-most in program history - in a 36-30 defeat at UCLA on Sept. 8.
The Huskers have bounced back to hold their last two opponents to a combined 496 yards in blowout wins over Arkansas State (42-13) and Idaho State (73-7).
Rex Burkhead, who ran for 1,357 yards last year, returned last Saturday against Idaho State after missing two games with a sprained knee and rushed for 119 yards with two touchdowns.
"What I know is that over the last two weeks we've gotten better," Pelini said. "We still need to continue to improve to be where we want to be at the end of the year. I like the trend and direction we're heading."
This all-time series is tied at three games apiece as the Badgers make their first trip to Lincoln since a 20-16 loss in 1973. Their only other visit was a 37-0 defeat in 1965.
- Montee Ball
- Bret Bielema
- Big Ten