No. 11 Nebraska, No. 22 Wisconsin could be classic

MADISON, Wis. (AP) It doesn't get much better in the Big Ten than Saturday's game between No. 11 Nebraska and No. 22 Wisconsin.

Two Heisman Trophy candidates. Tricky defensive matchups. Division title hopes on the line.

With chilly, see-your-breath weather in the forecast, the clash of West contenders has all the makings of a classic.

''What more could you really ask for in college football as a fan, a coach or a player?'' Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.

The Cornhuskers (8-1, 4-1, CFP No. 16) and Badgers (7-2, 4-1, CFP No. 20) are tied with Minnesota for first in the division. A loss makes it much tougher to win the West and get to the conference championship game.

But that won't even be biggest story line at Camp Randall Stadium.

This will be a showcase game for Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and fellow star running back Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin to make statements to Heisman voters.

The country's leader in all-purpose yards (Abdullah, 187.9) on one side; the leader in yards rushing (Gordon (166.8) on the other. There is so much hype about the tailback matchup, that the solid defenses have been overlooked.

''That gives us extra motivation because it shows how good of an offense that they are to have a Heisman Trophy candidate being talked about,'' Badgers linebacker Derek Landisch said. ''It brings a sense of urgency to this defense.''

Some things to watch in the teams' first meeting since Wisconsin throttled Nebraska 70-31 in the 2012 Big Ten championship game:

AMEER'S HEALTH: Abdullah wore a brace on his injured left knee in practice earlier this week. The Cornhuskers hoped that was a good sign that the standout senior would be ready for Saturday's showdown. Abdullah declined interviews after practice. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Abdullah looked good in drills.

''I don't know how it's going to play out. We go a little bit off of how he's feeling,'' coach Bo Pelini said. ''We'll find out Saturday.''

UP THE GUT: Gordon can break away for a touchdown on any carry, with the jet sweep being his signature big play. Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis is just as worried about how much damage Gordon can cause up the middle behind a typically stout Wisconsin offensive line.

One of the areas in which the 6-foot-1, 213-pound Gordon has improved most this year is running between the tackles.

''Yeah, we're going to have to hold up inside. That's going to be the key to this thing. If they run between the tackles on us, it could be a long day for us,'' Papuchis said.

UP FRONT: Nebraska doesn't have pushovers on the defensive line, though. Andersen is worried about a group that he described as including ''a bunch of guys on that defense that a lot of defensive coaches in the country would like to coach.'' He is especially worried about 6-6 end Randy Gregory, who has 5 1/2 sacks this season.

The Huskers are ninth in the Big Ten in total defense at 339.8 yards per game, but first in the league in pass defense efficiency in allowing opponents to complete just 46.9 percent of attempts.

JUMP AROUND: The Badgers are no slouches themselves on defense. They boast the top-ranked unit in the country in allowing just 251.3 yards per game.

The defense has surged over the last three games, bolstered by the returns of top defensive lineman Warren Herring and run-stopping linebacker Marcus Trotter from injuries. Landisch and outside linebacker Vince Biegel lead a stepped-up pass rush that must now contend with Nebraska dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. He's coming off an 8-of-21 outing two weeks ago against Purdue. Armstrong threw two interceptions and struggled several times with center-quarterback exchanges.

TWO-TIMING: Wisconsin goes with two quarterbacks, a system that is finally gaining traction after good outings for both starter Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy last week against the Boilermakers. Stave is more of the pocket passer, while McEvoy can change the pace with his mobility.

The Badgers started alternating by play at times last week, a rotation that Andersen hinted would continue against Nebraska. The hope in Madison is that the improved quarterback play can help balance the Gordon-led offense.

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Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP

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