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Wisconsin holds off Nebraska in pivotal Big Ten West matchup

No. 11 Wisconsin held off No. 7 Nebraska, 23-17, in a crucial Big Ten West matchup on Saturday in Madison. The win moves the Badgers to 6-2 and makes them the facorite to win the division.

It was brutal and tense, and then it became slightly wacky. On Saturday night, No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 7 Nebraska delivered the type of hard-hitting, low-scoring game you’d expect from two teams with good defenses and somewhat suspect offenses. Two Badgers interceptions in the fourth quarter—one thrown by Alex Hornibrook, one thrown by Bart Houston, both thrown to Nebraska safety Nate Gerry—added a twist, as did Wisconsin kicker Andrew Endicott first missing a potential game-winning field goal in regulation and then missing an extra point in overtime, giving Nebraska a chance to win on its final possession.

But as it did for much of the night (and most of the season), the Wisconsin D held, sealing a 23–17 win and making Nebraska the third undefeated team to fall on Saturday. Both Wisconsin quarterbacks, as well as Huskers signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr., struggled on the night, but the running back tandem of Dare Ogunbowale (11 carries for 120 yards) and Corey Clement picked up the slack for the Badgers’ offense, and their lockdown defense did the rest.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

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1. The Badgers enter November in excellent position to win the Big Ten West

Nebraska still has a one-game lead in the standings with a 4–1 conference record, but at this point the most likely outcome in the West is Wisconsin taking the division.

The Badgers just need the Huskers to lose one more game to have their head-to-head tiebreaker kick in; that’s probably going to happen when they travel to Ohio State next Saturday (though the Buckeyes have never looked more vulnerable after losing to Penn State and struggling with Northwestern on Saturday). If Nebraska manages to win that one, there’s still a decent chance it drops one of its final three games against Minnesota and Maryland and at Iowa. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is finally through the brutal portion of its schedule. It will be the clear favorite in each of its final four games, a slate which includes Big Ten bottom-feeders Purdue and Illinois, though next Saturday’s road trip to Northwestern will undoubtedly be a test.

Win out, and Paul Chryst’s team, which will also have the tiebreaker over Iowa should the Hawkeyes finish with two losses, is set to make life miserable in the Big Ten title game for whoever wins the East. Michigan or Ohio State will likely be playing for a spot in the playoff at that point, and it’s probably fair to say no other potential playoff team will have a tougher matchup in its conference championship game. The Badgers have an outside shot at getting in the playoff themselves should they get to Indianapolis and win there.

2. Wisconsin’s QB situation isn’t getting any better, so the run game needs to step it up

When Chryst made the move to replace Houston with Hornibrook as the starter at quarterback before the team’s Week 4 game against Michigan State, he was probably hoping the redshirt freshman would improve as the season went along, thus providing the position (and team as a whole) more upside. That hasn’t happened: While Hornibrook has had plenty of bright spots, he hasn’t been able to make plays through the air consistently, and it’s now clear his impressive performance in his debut can be chalked up to the Spartans’ woeful pass defense. That has prompted Chryst to occasionally go back to Houston the past couple weeks, and this could very well continue the rest of the season.


But at this point, it doesn’t matter a whole lot who’s behind center, since neither player has proven to be a great option and that’s probably not going to change. Against Nebraska, Hornibrook and Houston combined to go 14 of 23 for 114 yards, one touchdown and the two picks. Considering Wisconsin's struggles moving the ball through the air, the Badgers need to hope they can get their ground game into a higher gear. It’s been a staple of the program for what feels like ages, but no one would say this edition of Wisconsin's rushing attack is vintage.

Clement has received plenty of hype at times in his career, and he, Ogunbowale and the offensive line have showed well at various times this season, but it’s still a work in progress. The running game hasn’t been good enough to carry the team, which is how it usually is for Wisconsin and how it needs to be this year so the team can grind out possessions and take pressure off both the subpar quarterbacks and the defense, which bears a dangerously heavy load. Otherwise, the Badgers could slip over the final few weeks. It’s no coincidence that all of their touchdown drives on Saturday night featured productive running, and that needs to continue.

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3. Nebraska still has plenty to prove

As the Cornhuskers roared out to their 7–0 start, plenty of people made the natural comparison to 2015 Iowa as an undefeated team whose easy schedule played a big part in its spotless record. It wasn’t a perfect comparison, since the Huskers’ schedule has probably been tougher and they don’t get to avoid both Ohio State and Michigan, but it was very fair to wonder just how good Nebraska really was.

It’s still fair to wonder that. The team obviously showed well on Saturday night; it easily could have ended up winning the game, and battling back to take the Badgers to overtime at Camp Randall is no easy feat. The problem is familiar issues—namely Armstrong Jr.—from the past few seasons once again arose against a good opponent. Armstrong’s improved play this season gave hope he had turned a corner in his senior year, but he looked like the Armstrong of old against Wisconsin in going 12 of 31 for 153 yards and two interceptions, one of which was inexcusable. The Badgers' defense is one of the toughest in the country, but Armstrong had to be better. And while Nebraska did a good job holding Wisconsin to 17 points in regulation, it was too leaky against the run at times, especially against Ogunbowale. Also, it's fair to question the value of the Huskers' defensive performance against this lackluster offense.

Nebraska could very well (and probably should) finish 10–2, which would give it its best regular-season record since 2012. The Huskers undoubtedly are on their way to a successful season, but their schedule is playing a big part in it, and Saturday night showed they aren’t good enough to enter the Big Ten’s elite this season.