Nebraska has been able to get some of its mojo back after two straight Big Ten victories, but the level of difficulty is about to kick up in a major way this week when No. 9 Wisconsin comes to town.
The Badgers will bring a perfect 4-0 record to Lincoln on Saturday night, and they currently rank among the conference leaders in nearly every major statistical category.
As good as the Huskers (3-2) might be feeling about getting back over .500 and starting league play 2-0, head coach Mike Riley said UW would be the most difficult challenge his team had faced yet.
“We’re playing a really good all-around football team…” Riley said. “I would say overall personnel around the board with what they’re doing, it’s probably the best (team we’ve faced).
“When you’re talking about the big picture of playing team defense, playing together, being in sync, this is the best football team and the best all-around, offense/defense put together, that we’ve seen.”
Maybe the biggest test for Nebraska will be matching Wisconsin’s physicality on both sides of the football.
Offensively, the Badgers rank second in the Big Ten and 24th nationally in rushing (233.8 yards per game), led by breakout freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who has 24 carries for 518 yards and seven touchdowns and tops the conference at 129.5 yards per game.
Because of that success on the ground, UW leads the conference and is fifth nationally in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 34:48 per game.
“We faced them last year, so we know what they’re all about,” NU nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “It was a tough, physical game, and you respect what they do 100 percent… We have tremendous respect for what they do, and I know it’s definitely an exciting challenge for the defensive line.
“To get up for this one is pretty easy. You circle Wisconsin week at the beginning of the year, and you know it’s coming.”
The Badgers might be even better on defense, boasting the country's No. 4 total defense (247.0 ypg) and leading the league with seven interceptions as a team. Last week against Northwestern, UW racked up eight total sacks.
“I think everything goes up (against Wisconsin) in terms of intensity, a heightened level of focus, your preparation,” NU quarterback Tanner Lee said. “Everything needs to take a step up when you’re playing a team like Wisconsin or any team that’s ranked as high as they are and won games like they have. It’s going to take an all-out effort, and it’s something we’re looking forward to.”
As good as Wisconsin has been over the years, Nebraska has come within just a handful of plays of winning both of the first two matchups under Riley. The Badgers escaped Lincoln with a 23-21 win two years ago on a walk-off field goal, and then won 23-17 in overtime last season in Madison.
“The thing that is evident from our history with Wisconsin is you have to be the team that finishes,” Riley said. “We had our opportunities a couple years ago here to finish that game and didn’t do it… Then we had the ball with a chance to score and win it last year and did not do that.
“So it’s really about finishing the game at a high level, being able to produce and make plays on offense and defense.”
Jones returns to practice, nearing closer to comeback
Signs have been pointing to cornerback Chris Jones potentially nearing a return to action since he was able to participate in some light non-contact work in practice last week.
The situation then got even more positive on Sunday when the star senior tweeted: “Just when things seemed impossible, I went into prayer and God said watch me make that impossible; possible. God thank you. #IMBACK!!!”
During Nebraska’s weekly press conference on Monday, Riley confirmed that Jones has been cleared by NU’s medical staff to fully return to practice this week.
While it was definitely good news for the Huskers, Riley made sure to note that Jones still had work to do before he was ready to take the field again for a game.
“Chris Jones has been basically cleared to start practicing, and as I mentioned the other day, it’s been a long time since he’s played football, so we’ll see where he is,” Riley said. “Being cleared and being ready and practiced up to play in the game are obviously two different things.”
Jones’ teammates had nothing but praise for the work that he had put into his rehab since suffering a knee injury that was initially given a four-to-six month recovery timeframe.
Now entering the fourth week since the injury, Stoltenberg said he couldn’t wait for Jones to get back on the field with the defense for a crucial second half of the season.
“He’s definitely one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and to see him out there again is going to be exciting for the defense,” Stoltenberg said.
“Every day he came out and hit the ground running. I don’t think I’ve seen him put his head down or complain one time. He’s really attacked it about as maturely as he could have, and it’s no surprise he’s physically getting back to it faster than you might expect.”
Bryant ruled out again, concern growing over future status
What was initially described as a minor aggravation of a previous knee injury has steadily gotten more concerning for Tre Bryant over the past three weeks.
Since being sidelined for the second half against Oregon, the sophomore running back has now missed the past three games and has already been ruled out for Saturday night’s showdown with Wisconsin.
Riley declined to go into much detail as to what Bryant’s actual injury was, but the fact that he’s made such little progress in his recovery over an extended period of time has given a reason for worry about his status going forward.
“Tre is not going to be ready this week, and we don’t know what that means after that,” Riley said. “All we can do with Tre right now is hope he gets better…
“I can't really go into any more medical specifics. I’d be crazy to try and do that. But he’s had knee issues before, and it was aggravated in an earlier game, and it has not gotten sufficiently better to play.”
Despite only playing six quarters of football this season, Bryant still leads the team with 299 rushing yards after being NU’s workhorse back to start the year.
Praise continues for Stille with Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor
Ben Stille put together the best game of his young career in Nebraska’s dominating win over Illinois on Friday night, and on Monday the praise kept on coming for the redshirt freshman.
Stille was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week following his four tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and forced fumble against the Fighting Illini.
The former Ashland-Greenwood (Neb.) standout becomes NU’s first Freshman of the Week recipient since punter Caleb Lightbourn earned it last season.
“It’s definitely an honor when you’re recognized like that in the prestigious conference that we’re in,” Stille said. “But it definitely reflects on our team and our defense as a whole, and just other guys out there helping me out.”
Riley said Stille has really capitalized on a window of opportunity that opened up after some injuries racked up in Nebraska’s linebacking corps.
After playing all spring as a CAT outside linebacker, Stille moved back to defensive end at the start of fall camp.
When the Huskers needed someone to step up and add more depth after some key linebacker injuries, Stille turned into a big piece of NU’s defense as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end.
“Through the time that we’ve had him here, I’ve just seen really, really good, hard, consistent work that has basically paid off for him by taking an advantage of an opportunity that was presented to him a few weeks ago,” Riley said.
“Physically he’s done a good job. He’s very contentious, he’s always been an extremely hard worker. That’s what’s happened. It’s really that simple.”
***Running back Mikale Wilbon sprained his ankle vs. Illinois, but Riley said NU is "very hopeful" he'll be ready for Wisconsin. Riley said Wilbon wouldn't do much at Monday's practice.
***Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson (turf toe) was cleared to travel on Thursday before the Illinois game but didn't play. They're hoping he continues to feel better this week.
***Saftey Aaron Williams is dealing with a soft tissue injury in his neck, and Riley said it's a matter of him handling the pain. Williams will be limited this week but is expected to play on Saturday night.
***Saftey Joshua Kalu will be back at practice on Monday and could be ready to return to the lineup vs. Wisconsin.
***Linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring) was supposed to return to practice on Monday but got sick. The Huskers hope he'll be back for Tuesday's practice.
***Riley said right tackle David Knevel (foot) and center Cole Conrad (knee) continue to get better and will both be available to play vs. Wisconsin.
***Right tackle Matt Farniok (wrist) continues to be limited but will be able to play vs. Wisconsin if needed.
***Wide receiver Stanley Morgan (neck) suffered no setbacks in Friday's win over Illinois and will be good to go again this week.
***Receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El has been dealing with shoulder and ankle injuries but should again be good to play on Saturday. Pierson-El said he felt fine and was just dealing with normal football bumps and bruises.