LINCOLN — Sometimes, long shots and dire straits make big men grin.
Which is why offensive lineman Jerald Foster couldn’t stop smiling this week. Wisconsin is coming to town. The Badgers have beaten the Huskers four straight times. NU is a double-digit underdog at home. Wisconsin’s consistent strengths — pass rush, steadiness, a clear identity — double as Nebraska’s consistent weaknesses.
Foster’s smile says he knew all that. He called No. 9 Wisconsin “impressive.” So did many of his teammates, in their own words.
“But they definitely have weaknesses,” Foster said, noting UW’s hot-and-cold 33-24 win over Northwestern. “It’s going to be a whole lot of fun to see if we can’t figure them out. I really am just ready to play Wisconsin. It sounds like a whole lot of fun.
“Bring ’em here, 7 o’clock game, I’m really going to enjoy it.”
Coach Mike Riley’s tenure may depend on those three hours Saturday night. He was in no mood to look beyond the Badger tilt. He didn’t take the bait on a question that coupled Wisconsin and Ohio State — which visits next week — into a two-game stretch.
“Do I have to talk about anything past this week?” Riley said. “I’m not thinking about that. Why do I have to think about a stretch? This isn’t baseball. I only have one game to think about this week.”
It is, on more than one level, a more important game than Ohio State.
NU (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) welcomes the 1997 national title team for its 20-year anniversary. Several players who were part of that team have been vocal in interviews and on social media about desiring change in the program.
Nebraska has additionally dropped two games this year it could have won, while the Badgers (4-0, 1-0) have a manageable enough Big Ten schedule that an NU loss could mean its West division chances are dashed. The Chicago Tribune already thinks that’s the case — an online headline declared Wisconsin has the division “locked up” despite playing one league game thus far.
“Goodness gracious,” Foster said when showed the headline. “Already locked up?”
That declaration is a nod to the Badgers’ relative dominance of the West. They’ve lost three division games since the West formed in 2014. They’ve never been underdogs in a West division game. They’ve played for two league titles, losing both but sending the larger message: Wisconsin owns the left half of the Big Ten. It has owned Nebraska, too: 59-24 in 2014, 23-21 in 2015 and 23-17 in 2016.
With each game, Nebraska has had a better chance to win. With each, Nebraska has fallen short. A blown pass coverage in 2015. A failed final drive of regulation — followed by a horrible series in overtime — in 2016.
“It’s just little things,” right guard Tanner Farmer said. A turnover. A penalty. A third-down conversion. A third-down sack.
The margin of error against Wisconsin is thin in part because Wisconsin is so big. Big offensive linemen — the starters average 322 pounds. Big backs. Big risks on blitzes and pressures that pay off into big rewards. A defense that, year after year, fits together like a big lock.
“The biggest thing about these guys is they ain’t going to make any mistakes,” right tackle David Knevel said. “They’re going to be in all their gaps, where they’re supposed to.” Subtly in the last nine months, Nebraska’s program has moved toward better emulating UW’s defense by hiring defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who runs a 3-4 similar to — though not exactly like — Wisconsin’s. Nebraska has practiced against the scheme since Diaco’s arrival, and the DC has been concocting exotic pressure packages in practice against the Husker offense. “Coach Diaco has given us every look you could possibly have,” Foster said.
Nebraska’s defense — stingy enough that it has allowed fewer than 4 yards per play in its last three games — gets its most significant physical challenge of the season in Wisconsin’s power offense. Pulling linemen. Blocking tight ends and fullbacks. Running plays that can find their peak in the second halves of games.
“They’re just very physical,” outside linebacker Luke Gifford said. “That’s the biggest thing we’ve got to match, their physicality.”
The demeanor of the Huskers this week suggested they expect to match Wisconsin in every way. Even if their season is dangling by a Saturday night thread, they’re not. Riley said he sees the confidence growing after wins over Rutgers and Illinois.
“There’s an excitement about playing football right now for them that is contagious throughout the team,” Riley said.
It’s reflected in Foster’s comments. He didn’t get to play in the 2016 game; he was still rehabbing a knee injury. He sat at home, inviting over all of the injured Huskers to watch NU falter late. Foster had to be a fan that night.
He’ll be in the fight this time.
“I really want to play this team,” Foster said. “I love their program. They bring it every single game. Nebraska, we do the same thing.”
Wisconsin at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 103.1 FM