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Nebraska opens first Big Ten season with Wisconsin

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COLIN FLY
October 1, 2011
— One of the biggest home games in Wisconsin history happens to also be the Big Ten debut for Nebraska, and Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez can't wait to make a big splash.

"Everybody on the team has something to prove," Martinez said. "We're ready to shock the world."


When No. 7 Wisconsin hosts No. 8 Nebraska on Saturday night it will be the first time in 49 years that two teams ranked in the top 10 will meet at Camp Randall Stadium. Some 30,000 Nebraska fans are expected to be in Madison, with or without tickets, and there will be no shortage of red and white.


There will similarities on the field, too.


Both teams will use the run to set up play-action passes from their mobile quarterbacks, while the defenses each have lingering questions to answer when the Cornhuskers (4-0) showcase their option-style run game against the Badgers' (4-0) pro-set, power-running scheme.


"You watch Nebraska's offense, you watch our offense; it's two different animals," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "That's why I do think, for us, an advantage we will have is it's very tough for a Nebraska roster to simulate our roster as far as putting scout teamwork together. I don't even know if they have fullback or a tight end that kind of does the same things that we do."


Of course, Wisconsin doesn't necessarily have anyone who can simulate the speed and arm of Martinez.


"He can quickly take off," Bielema said. 'We just hope to get in front of him and make him fall down."


Who can establish the run first will be key. Nebraska has I-back Rex Burkhead and Martinez, and Wisconsin uses running backs Montee Ball and James White. The two programs are the only ones in the FBS to return a pair of players who each ran for 900 yards or more last season.


"You're going to have to stop the run, otherwise we're going to keep doing it," Wisconsin center Peter Konz said. "A lot of emphasis is put on the run, because if you stop the run successfully and all of a sudden you know there's a pass coming, the play-action's not going to work because the running game's not going to work."


The running game has worked well so far for both programs. The Badgers and Huskers have 16 rushing touchdowns each, second to Georgia Tech's 21 for the most in the nation so far this year.


"It comes down to little details," Burkhead said when asked how the Huskers can beat Wisconsin. "You really got to concentrate on that, whether it's your footwork, your head placement if you're a lineman. Just those little details make the difference between a few yards and big plays."


All the little things are being scrutinized this week in one of the most hyped openers ever on the Big Ten schedule even though the game's long-term significance could fade quickly. With the new division format in the Big Ten, Wisconsin (Leaders) and Nebraska (Legends) could meet again in the conference title game on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.


"We just want to start strong, especially against good opponents," Konz said. "Nebraska is going to come in here and obviously have something to prove, so we've got to be mentally focused."


The Badgers are 27-3 in their last 30 night games, including a win over then-No. 1 Ohio State last year to launch their Rose Bowl run. They started that game by returning the opening kick for a touchdown and never looked back.


This year, they have a new threat with transfer quarterback Russell Wilson, who has 11 TD passes and has helped the Badgers lead the nation in third-down conversions.


"The kid has done a good job of learning how the offense works and how to make it work for himself," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "I think they took a guy and fit him in as another piece of the puzzle, and that's the right way to go about it."


The atmosphere will be right, too. More than 80,000 people will be jammed into Camp Randall Stadium, and Nebraska fans have been asked to wear black to differentiate themselves from their red-clad Wisconsin brethren. Wisconsin officials plan to keep a large tailgate area open for 5,000 overflow fans to watch the biggest game on campus since No. 3 Wisconsin topped No. 5 Minnesota 14-9 on Nov. 24, 1962.


"There's been a lot of excitement," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "Internally, we were focused on our first four games as they came, one at a time, but I know out in the city and around campus, there's been a lot of excitement for this game in particular. And now it's here for us, so we can focus on it too."


Nor a bad way to start a long stay in a new conference home.


"It's going to be really exciting. It'll be a cool experience," Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy said. "I can't wait to see what it's all about."



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