It almost seemed inevitable that Wisconsin would be sitting right where they are this week, you know representing the Leaders division in Indianapolis. However, the journey there wasn't exactly what any of us would have imagined it to be. That said we have a shot to do something no other team in Wisconsin history has ever done – win three straight Big Ten football championships.
The question remains, can the Badgers get the job done against a Nebraska team they already lost to once this season? Well, it's time to explore just how that very thing could happen. If it does happen the Badgers will join Michigan and Ohio State as the only teams in Big Ten history to make the Rose Bowl three straight seasons and I'm sure that will tick off that little incestuous duo's fanbases to no end.
Now on to how our Badgers claim that title against a ton of self inflicted and beyond their control odds on Saturday. Here's what we'll be watching for and what you should be too.
1) 3rd quarter production – A lot of Badger nation have been pointing to late game or overtime failures as something to do with a lack of ability down the stretch and as the last two weeks should've proved that's not totally the case. Instead it's really about the lack of an ability to do anything in the 3rd frame of games they've lost all season long.
In all 5 losses this season the Badgers have outscored their opponents in every single quarter but the 3rd. They hold a 28-17 advantage in the 1st, a 21-19 advantage in the 2nd, and a 24-18 advantage in the 4th quarter. It's that pesky 3rd quarter that trips them up almost every single time. Wisconsin has been outscored 27-7 in the 3rd quarter in their 5 losses this season. In fact in every game but the Nebraska game they've failed to put up any points. If the Badgers managed to put up even a single field goal in the period those three OT losses never even happen and the Oregon State game would've been flipped on it's head, simple as that.
What's even more telling about 3rd quarter production is that when the Badgers win they've owned the 3rd quarter like it's their job. In the seven victories this season Bucky holds a distinct 56-21 advantage and has held 4 opponents scoreless in the frame while only failing to score in the quarter once (UTEP). So, if you want a sign as to how the Badgers are going to do in this one just look at how the 3rd quarter unfolds.
2) Getting Phillips going early – The Badgers 3rd QB behind center this season has done a remarkable job so far this year of making some huge plays when it counts and we'll be watching to see if that kind of magic can be replicated early on. The Badgers are going against the statistically best passing defense in the country, but if Phillips can find a deep passing game early on that only helps what is a vastly different running game than what the Huskers saw in Lincoln the first time around. If Phillips can connect deep it should also give him the confidence that seems to be lacking out of the gate with him for some reason. He was just 4-11 in the 1st half against the Buckeyes before picking it up late and last week was another step forward. The Badgers wouldn't only benefit from him poking some early holes in the Huskers pass defense.
3) Run BWG in full affect – The first time around the Badgers were still struggling to find ways to get the ball in the hands of anyone not named Montee Ball in the run game, but since then they've really found their stride in calling plays and splitting the carries. Last week we even saw Melvin Gordon out in a pass catching role. If the Badgers want to win on Saturday they need to have White and Gordon be forces to think about for the Huskers defense and they can't touch the ball 1 time (Gordon) or 2 times (White) like they did in the first meeting this year. That simply won't work.
4) Opportunistic defense – Look, this Nebraska offense can put up points with the best of them when they want to, but they can also be stopped and a big part of that is the Badgers being opportunistic on the defensive side of the ball. What do we mean by that? Well, when Martinez is dead to rights behind the line of scrimmage you have to finish him off by sacking or hitting him. It also means making him make bad decisions with the football and coming up with a turnover or two. The Badgers didn't really do any of that against him in the first game, but this is a very different defense with a different swagger to them than the one that was in Memorial Stadium getting torched in the 2nd half.
5) The Devin Smith factor – Nebraska's offense has been predicated lately on making big plays in the passing game following some hard running by Martinez and Abdullah. However, the Badgers have one of the hottest corners in the country as of late in Devin Smith who just wasn't 100% in the first matchup – Bielema admitted as much to me on a conference call this week – and with that improvement this could be a dangerous matchup in Wisconsin's favor. They love hitting Kenny Bell for those quick strike, big plays but Smith is more athletic and capable of stopping that. Heck, I'm willing to call that Smith gets at least one pick and at least 3 PUB's on Saturday.
All of these are things you should be keeping an eye on if the Badgers want to win on Saturday, but if you think there are others leave a comments below or join the conversation via Twitter and Facebook.