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One of the biggest thorns in the side of Nebraska’s coaching staff leading up to its previous two meetings with Wisconsin was trying to prepare its offense for all that the Badgers’ dominant 3-4 defense entailed in less than a week of practices.
That all changed from the moment new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco arrived on campus.
Having now worked against a complicated and multiple 3-4 scheme throughout spring ball and fall camp, head coach Mike Riley said NU's offense feels much more prepared for what it’s going to face against Wisconsin this time around on Saturday night.
“We all think that having the 3-4 defense to practice against in spring ball, all through fall camp, is a good thing for us,” Riley said. “We think the preparation of what we’ve seen from spring ball all through fall camp, you’d like to say you’ve probably seen the kitchen sink. Everybody probably has a different flavor to it…
“I think it’s beneficial. I think obviously the work will be good and now it will be contending against the personnel we’re going to play against.”
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said that while Diaco's defense sometimes gave his group fits early on this offseason, he knew it would pay off down the road, especially in a crucial week like this one.
“I’ve kind of felt that it’s easier to transition to playing a 3-4 team to a 4-3 game in a week than it is to go the other way,” Langsdorf said. “So I think it’s been a real advantage, a real help for us.”
Langsdorf added that Diaco’s system utilizes a variety of looks and pressures, which should eliminate a lot of the surprise factor for the offensive line against Badgers.
Junior guard Jerald Foster agreed, saying the o-line has never been more prepared to face a 3-4 defense than it was right now.
“With Coach Diaco, he’s given us about every look you can possibly have,” Foster said. “Hopefully we don’t get surprised by anything that comes that way, but we’re really able to adjust from whatever they bring.
“The 3-4, it’s a little difficult. I’d say a base 4-3 is a whole lot easier on your reads and key blocks and things like that, but with our time that we’ve had against the 3-4 and now that that’s what we usually go against, I think we’re going to have a good time with them.”
- Robin Washut
Wilbon's injury could give Ozigbo, Bradley spotlight
With Nebraska’s top two running backs, sophomore Tre Bryant and junior Mikale Wilbon, hobbled with injuries, the “next man up” premise takes on a whole new meaning as the Huskers prepare for Wisconsin.
Riley listed Wilbon as “hopeful” at Monday’s press conference, and if the shifty junior can’t go with an ankle sprain, the lion’s share of carries will go to junior Devine Ozigbo and true freshman Jaylin Bradley.
Wilbon did not practice on Monday or Tuesday, and his status for Saturday's game is questionable. Riley already ruled Bryant out this week on Monday.
“You like to tell guys that they’re always one injury away or one play away from having to go in,” running backs coach Reggie Davis said. “Obviously that multiplies if you’re the third guy or the fourth guy, but now if you’re the second guy, that can happen a whole lot faster.”
A former three-star prospect out of Bellevue (Neb.) West, Bradley came into Nebraska with high expectations after setting a state high school record with 50 rushing touchdowns a year ago.
The 6-foot, 180 pound freshman recorded his first carry against Rutgers and has seven on the season.
Meanwhile, Ozigbo has broken out as NU's leading rusher the past two weeks after receiving just 21 carries in 10 games before the matchup with the Scarlet Knights.
Coming into 2017 as the Huskers’ third option at running back, the junior was anticipated to function as a power back, but has filled a more balanced role in the past two weeks.
Riley stressed again Monday that the Huskers would need to establish the run to open up the pass, but it may be easier said than done against the Badgers. The toughest run defense NU has faced to date is Northern Illinois, which held the Huskers to just 85 yards on the ground.
Wisconsin currently ranks fourth among FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing just 74.3 yards per game in 2017. While Davis is confident in his group, he knows they have their work cut out for them on Saturday.
“They’re still physical, they play with great motors, they don’t stay blocked,” Davis said. "They’re ranked in the top five in the country against the run in different areas for good reason.”
- Matt Reynoldson
Morgan getting back to basics after drop-filled Illinois game
The final stat sheet from Nebraska’s 28-6 win over Illinois looked awfully good for Stanley Morgan, who ended the night with a career-high eight catches for 96 yards and a touchdown.
However, those numbers could have been far better had the junior wide receiver not dropped at least four catchable passes along the way.
Following Monday’s practice, Morgan stayed on the field to catch balls off the JUGS football passing machine. Receivers coach Keith Williams said the only thing holding NU’s top wideout back was himself and staying focused on the details.
“Just get back to basics, fundamentals, and the technical aspects of catching the ball,” Williams said. “Those drops he had were due to just not looking it in. All those drops you can see on tape that his head is turned away from the ball.
“He’s usually great at that part of what we call taking a picture of the ball. It’s actually an inside joke about how much he takes a picture of the ball in practice. It’s almost excessively. He’s got to get back to that, he had a good practice today in terms of that part in his game.”
Despite some drops and missing the Rutgers game due to a neck injury, Morgan has still caught at least five passes in each of the four games he has played this season and has had at least 94 receiving yards in all four contests.
The New Orleans native is now up to 84 career catches, moving up to 12th on the school’s career list, and 1,152 career receiving yards, which rank 16th on the NU career chart.
- Robin Washut
Former Badger commit Barry not focused on personal storyline
In June of 2014, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson linebacker Mohamed Barry decided to put an end to his recruitment prior to his senior season and gave a verbal commitment to the University of Wisconsin.
Little did anyone know that would be just the start of a wild next few months that would eventually see him de-commit from the Badgers and commit to Kansas State that November, then de-commit from KSU and commit to Nebraska in January of 2015.
As the Huskers get ready for Saturday night’s showdown with Wisconsin, Barry said he can’t help but look back on how his recruitment started and where it ended up.
That said, Barry is far more focused on the task at hand than any personal storylines.
“I do think about that,” Barry said. “I’m excited to play this game because it does mean something to me, but again, it’s not about me. It’s about the team and we have a great opportunity to showcase our defense and our program and beat a ranked team and a top-10 team.
“So that’s the real storyline right there: Nebraska vs. a top-10 team, and we’ve got a lot to prove and we get to prove it this week.”
- Robin Washut
***Cornerback Chris Jones (knee), safety Joshua Kalu (hamstring), linebacker Marcus Newby (hamstring), linebacker Tyrin Ferguson (toe), and offensive linemen David Knevel (foot), Cole Conrad (knee), and Matt Farniok (wrist) all suited up and practiced on Tuesday.
***Kalu, Safety Aaron Williams (neck) and receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El (shoulder/ankle) both practiced in green no-contact jerseys.
***Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he’s “not going to get overly excited” about Jones returning to practice because he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on the senior to rush back to game action. Diaco said Jones “has looked really good the last few days”, but it was entirely up to him when he plays again.
***From the way Knevel answered questions after Tuesday’s practice, it seemed like he’s fully preparing himself to return to the starting lineup at right tackle on Saturday night. Knevel said he sprained his ankle and suffered a stress reaction in his foot during the season opener, and he could have played last week but the trainers decided to give him another week of rest.
***Linebackers coach Trent Bray said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach on Newby this week, so it’s unclear if he’ll be available to play on Saturday.
***Ozigbo said even though Bryant and Wilbon have been out, they’ve both stayed very active with the team in meetings, film study, and practices. Ozigbo said Bryant and Wilbon have been willing to help in any way they can, and have been giving lots of advice to the other backs, especially Bradley.
***Linebacker Luke Gifford said one of the biggest reasons why the linebackers have played so well the past few weeks has been the increased rotation within the unit during games. He said guys are able to not only stay fresh into the fourth quarter, it’s allowed others like Ben Stille to see more playing time and make an impact.
***Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams said his group’s tackling has been average at best this season, and it was something that had to get better. However, Williams said this was not the week to make that the biggest emphasis because he didn’t want it getting in his players’ heads and worsening their play.
***Williams said the biggest emphasis for the cornerbacks would be "eye discipline", as they had to know where their coverages were at all times with how well Wisconsin utilizes the play-action passing game.
***Ozigbo said never in his career has he carried the ball 11 straight times to close out the game. He said he wasn’t sure how he would handle that type of workload, but said he felt OK physically at the end of the game.
***Ozigbo also said a referee during the Illinois game gave him a warning about his cropped jersey, saying it could draw a penalty if he kept doing it. So don’t expect to see Ozigbo sport the cropped jersey much longer.