Another week has passed, and the Wisconsin football team fell in overtime again — 24-21 to Penn State.
After its second overtime loss in a row — and third in four games — Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) will look to rebound quickly in preparation for its Big Ten title matchup against Nebraska (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) Saturday in Indianapolis.
Improvements can be made all around, but defending the run — and senior running back Rex Burkhead — was quickly put under the microscope in head coach Bret Bielema’s weekly press conference.
“[Burkhead]’s a very, very good football player. He’s very powerful. Some of their zone schemes and running attacks, he brings an element that maybe number eight and number five don’t necessarily bring, as far as the physicality element,” Bielema said. “He goes at it 100 miles an hour when he’s in there.”
The defense will have its job cut out for it come Saturday. Burkhead is coming off an injury, but he proved against Iowa Friday he is still a capable threat. Burkhead had only 69 yards on 16 carries against Iowa Saturday, but all of them came in the second half. He would go on to score the touchdown that put the Huskers ahead for the remainder of the game in the last few minutes of the third quarter.
The most important cog to the linebacking corps tasked with stopping the powerful Burkhead might just be the injured Chris Borland. Bielema said Borland will go through practice on Tuesday, leading to the expectation he will play against Nebraska this weekend.
Although he has been short of game snaps as of late, Bielema was not short of praise for Borland.
“Chris is a tremendous football player,” Bielema said. “He’s a very, very gifted leader. When times are tough or when things aren’t going your way, he has an uncanny way of making a really big play.”
Wisconsin allowed 179 yards rushing to Penn State’s Zach Zwinak Saturday, so improving the run defense may prove crucial to success in Indianapolis.
But Bielema said stopping Nebraska’s rush does not solely come from halting Burkhead — quarterback Taylor Martinez adds a similarly potent attack himself. So far this year, he’s thrown 21 touchdowns in 12 games, and he added eight more while rushing the ball. Three of those touchdowns came against the Badgers Sept. 29 in a 30-27 Wisconsin loss.
“Taylor brings a couple different things that you have to be cautious on,” Bielema said. “He’s a mobile quarterback that understands football. So in certain situations, if you bring pressure and all of a sudden he can escape that pressure, he can run for a long time without someone getting him down.”
The Badgers offense has threats of its own — newly-anointed quarterback Curt Phillips.
Phillips, who has stepped in for the injured redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, hasn’t been as impressive, but has stepped up in key situations, particularly at the end of games.
“You know, [Phillips] can throw the football,” Bielema said. “When he sees it and reads it and reacts to it. The last play that he threw, obviously, was very close to being a pick, and I think he will probably go back and look at that, and [think], ‘What could I do better to make sure that that opportunity doesn’t rise up again.’”
The play of Curt Phillips will surely be a big factor in the outcome of the game, but the Badgers experience from last seasons first title game against Michigan State and their first matchup with Nebraska this season will help motivate them for Saturday’s game.
“It’s a chance for our guys to play an opponent that we didn’t win, didn’t beat before, and that’s always a motivating factor,” Bielema said. “It’s not a game as much of bad feelings or ill will or anything like that; it’s that they beat us last time.”