Five things to watch for as Wisconsin aims for another Big Ten championship

[caption id="attachment_51" align="alignright" width="263" caption="Bret Bielema eyes a third consecutive Big Ten title Saturday night against Nebraska. The Huskers won the first meeting this season 30-27."][/caption]

1. Badgers healthier than first time around

Bret Bielema has mentioned this week that his Badgers are in much better shape physically than the first time Wisconsin and Nebraska met this year, and with good reason.

When UW traveled to Lincoln, Neb. Sept. 29, they were without Shelton Johnson (broken arm) in the secondary. Defensive ends Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (hand) were forced to sit out and linebacker Chris Borland played with a strained MCL.

Johnson, Kelly and Muldoon are back to 100 percent and Borland – who missed the last two games with a hamstring injury – is fully practicing this week and says he feels great.

The return of those key defenders should help the unit surrender less than 447 yards, the amount they gave up two months ago. If they plan on winning, they had better.

2. Curt Phillips on crucial third downs

Another change for Wisconsin from the first time they played the Cornhuskers is the man under center.

Phillips is the third different starting quarterback Bielema has been forced to use this season. Joel Stave made the first start of his career in the last meeting and seemed to make progress every week after.

That is, until he broke his collarbone about a month later in a loss against Michigan State.

Phillips has been more of a game manager than a game changer, completing 30-of-57 for 386 yards, four touchdowns and a pick in his three starts since taking over for Stave.

On third down, he’s completing just 46 percent (11-of-24) of his throws. On third and 3-7, those numbers dip even further to 29 percent (4-of-14).

Since allowing 63 points to the Buckeyes Oct. 6, the Blackshirts haven’t surrendered more than 28 since and have held three opponents to 14 or less in that span.

Phillips will likely be forced into several key third down passing situations and his performance in that regard could be the difference.

3. Wisconsin’s offensive line vs. Nebraska’s defensive line

It’s no secret that in order for UW to score, they need to get the ground game going, something that hasn’t been nearly as simple as they have made it look in years past.

In the first meeting, UW had major issues getting a push up front. Montee Ball ran for 90 yards and three touchdowns, but needed 32 carries to get there, an average of just 2.8 yards per run.

The Badgers have struggled with consistency from their linemen all season. Last week against Penn State, Ball was shut down over the final three quarters, rushing for only 66 yards on 22 carries after a hot start.

With a quarterback struggling on third down, even more pressure will fall upon the line to allow Ball and James White to do the dirty work and put the Badgers in manageable third downs.

4. UW’s front seven vs. Burkhead, Abdullah

This matchup is always an intriguing one because the two teams mirror each other in many ways, one being that they love the power run game.

Rex Burkhead has not had the senior season he envisioned. He has missed six full games and parts of a few more with a bothersome left knee.

He made his return last week in the second half at Iowa after missing Nebraska’s previous four games and ran for 69 yards and a score on 16 carries.

The silver lining to all of this was the emergence of sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who filled the void about as well as he could rushing for over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.

The duo ran for 156 yards against the Badgers in September on 28 attempts.

With Burkhead running on fresh legs and the red-hot Abdullah to spell him, the Badger front seven will have its work cut out.

5. Matt Canada’s play calling

In a season filled with frustrations, perhaps the man who has faced the most scrutiny is new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

He was hired away from Northern Illinois by Bielema to replace Paul Chryst, who left to become the head coach at Pittsburgh after last season.

Among the complaints with Canada is that he becomes much too predictable and falls into a repetitive pattern in the booth. In losses to Ohio State and Penn State in the last two weeks, he elected to hand it off to a back on several 3rd-and-long situations with poor results.

Look for Canada to mix up the play calling and pull out a couple of trick plays he hasn’t shown yet as this is definitely the time for it.

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