Wisconsin facing potent Nebraska running game
Wisconsin vs. Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison.
MADISON During a four-year stint in the Big 12 Conference while at Iowa State, Charlie Partridge learned to appreciate and respect Nebraska's offensive philosophy.
A decade removed from his last season at Iowa State, Wisconsin's co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach is readying his troops to face a Nebraska offense that appears to have rediscovered its roots.
"From everything they appear to be doing, they appear to be working hard to get back to what they were philosophically," said Partridge, who worked at Iowa State from 1998-2001. "The belly option, the lead option, the belly toss … things I haven't seen since I was in the Big 12."
Seventh-ranked UW (4-0) hosts No. 8 Nebraska (4-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the teams' Big Ten Conference opener.
The issue facing UW's defense, which has compiled a lofty statistical ranking mostly on the backs of lesser offensive teams, is uncomplicated.
UW must contain the Cornhuskers' diverse running game, which features quarterback Taylor Martinez and I-back Rex Burkhead.
Nebraska enters the game No. 8 nationally in rushing offense (272.5 yards per game, 6.0 yards per carry). Martinez (105.2 ypg) and Burkhead (105.0 ypg) are No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in rushing in the Big Ten.
The 6-1, 200-pound Martinez averages 6.7 yards per carry and might be as fast as any quarterback in the nation.
He can get to the edge of a defense and turn up the field before linebackers can flow to the ball and cut him off. He has six carries of 20 yards or longer this season, including four of 40 yards or longer.
"I think he is has fast as any quarterback we'll see," Partridge said. "That will be the challenge."
UW freshman wide receiver Lance Baretz, who played quarterback at Franklin High School, is playing the role of Martinez on the scout team this week.
"Lance has got extremely quick feet," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "I'm not saying he's Taylor Martinez, otherwise he might be playing, but he's doing a really nice job of simulating him."
Burkhead, 5-11 and 210, has lost a total of 3 yards on 63 carries. He averages 6.7 yards per carry.
"I'm impressed with how hard he runs," UW linebackers coach Dave Huxtable said. "He can make people miss, and he can run over people. He runs with an attitude."
Martinez has been effective running between the tackles on option plays and draws out of the shotgun. He rushed for 135 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga and then added 166 yards and two touchdowns in Week 2 against Fresno State.
Washington and Wyoming were able to slow Martinez—he had a combined 120 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries in those games—but Burkhead ran wild.
Burkhead rushed 22 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns against Washington and 15 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns against Wyoming.
Burkhead has no problem running through arm tackles at the line of scrimmage and can power through linebackers. He is also effective on the perimeter via the pitch or on a toss sweep.
"He is tough, hard-nosed," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "He is a guy that kind of brings his lunch pail every day and plays really hard. He is a great guy to have on your football team in so many different ways."
UW is tied for 22nd nationally in run defense (89.3 yards per game). That number ballooned after the Badgers allowed 124 rushing yards to South Dakota last week.
Tailback Marcus Sims had runs of 17 and 22 yards on plays middle linebacker Chris Borland scraped too far down the line and left a gap open.
"Sometimes Chris just wants to go, go, go," Huxtable said. "He's just got to get the right tempo to fit the play properly."
Quarterback Dante Warren ripped off a 25-run through the line when UW deployed its nickel package.
Slowing Nebraska's running game will not be easy. UW's tackles must be stout on the belly series. The ends must play the option smartly, the linebackers must be in the proper gaps and the secondary must tackle well.
"We know it is going to be a tremendous challenge, which is what you embrace," Partridge said. "The thing that Nebraska does is not only assignment football, they've got really good players. They've got good offensive linemen and good skill.
"They challenge you from both standpoints. You've got to play physically and assignment football."