MADISON — Remembering students storming the field to celebrate with his players and on the Camp Randall goal posts, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema recognizes how special last year's Ohio State week was for his program as it took a step forward on a national stage.
So as No. 7 Wisconsin (4-0) prepares for No. 8 Nebraska (4-0) on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, Bielema sees another opportunity to stamp the Badgers as one of the nation's elite — even while Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is 500 miles away calling his program's welcome-to-the-Big-Ten moment "just the next game on the schedule for us."
Bielema: "We've worked very hard to get ourselves in the position we are in today. We're here. We don't plan on leaving, so let's take advantage of the opportunities that come in front of us."
Pelini: "It is just part of the process of what we are trying to accomplish as a team. Historically, it doesn't affect our guys."
Maybe if Pelini were already in Madison, he'd understand the excitement surrounding the game. Area hotels have been sold out for months, even cheap tickets are being sold for more than $200 a pop, and UW athletic department officials are estimating upwards of 20,000 Nebraska fans will descend on the city to be a part of the atmosphere surrounding the first meeting between top-10 opponents at Camp Randall since Nov. 24, 1962.
Ironically, all this attention has been thrust on a game between two teams that have plenty of questions to answer despite unbeaten nonconference seasons.
The Cornhuskers were expected to bring a tough-as-nails, never-give-an-inch defense to the Big Ten — but instead have been involved in two shootouts. Nebraska is averaging 42.8 points (second to Wisconsin in the conference) and 439 yards of total offense (fourth) behind sophomore dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez. Martinez is averaging 105.3 rushing yards and posted a 200-yard passing, 100-yard rushing game against Fresno State.
"As you study and watch him now, he's very, very fast," Bielema said of Martinez. "He lets guys go up and make plays. The one thing I have really enjoyed over the last 48 hours watching film, I think Nebraska players are a lot like Wisconsin players because they both love to play the game."
But with every touchdown allowed — Nebraska has given up 22.0 points per game -- Pelini and his brother, defensive coordinator Carl, grow more frustrated. One of the top scoring defenses in the country since Pelini became the head coach in 2008, the Blackshirts have given up more than 300 yards three times and more than 400 yards twice.
The Huskers admit that they need to fix a unit that is ranked 46th nationally in scoring defense, 56th against the rush (133.3 yards per game) and 63rd against the pass (216.5).
"I think we're just trying to find the right combination, the right people that click together, so we can communicate better, the right level of physicality," said senior safety Austin Cassidy, whose fiancé's entire family is from Madison. "There's lot of different things that go into it."
One of the most important things Saturday is that Nebraska will be at full strength with All-Big 12 selections defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on the field together for the first time this season. After missing last week's win over Wyoming with an apparent head injury, Crick — Nebraska's leader with 9.5 sacks last season — practiced Monday and will return to the lineup Saturday.
"We have to keep working to get better," Bo Pelini said. "Having those guys out there together, along with everybody else, we have to get on the same page. We have to keep upping our level of play, regardless of who is on the schedule."
Who has been on the schedule is the biggest question mark for Wisconsin. In starting 4-0 for the third straight year, the Badgers are one of three teams in the nation averaging at least 240 yards rushing (245.5) and passing (286.8). Wisconsin has outscored its opponents 194-34, but its nonconference competition has a combined 5-10 record. Still, Wisconsin's defense isn't going to apologize for doing what was needed in the first four games.
"I think we're an aggressive bunch," sophomore linebacker Chris Borland said. "We're talented, and we harp getting after it. We like to play fast and aggressive. We have good chemistry, and we like to try to rattle the opposing offense."
Wisconsin's offense has yet to be rattled. Senior quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred from North Carolina State in the offseason, is the biggest reason Badgers fans have gone from talking about this game as a preview of the first Big Ten championship to looking at Nebraska as a milepost on the way to a possible national title. Wilson has been close to perfect for the Badgers, completing 75.8 percent of his passes for 1,136 yards with 11 touchdowns and one interception.
He ranks second nationally in quarterback rating (218.4) and is on pace to throw 32 touchdown passes, 11 more than the team record. His ability to sell play-action passes has defenses guessing, has his receivers averaging 12 yards per catch and has everyone at Wisconsin enjoying a quick-strike passing game to complement its perennially punishing running attack.
"I don't think (the transition) could possibly have gone smoother," Borland said. "Russell fits. He's the exact guy we try to recruit character-wise, and it was a seamless transition. He's the type of player that you can afford to bring in as a transfer with his high character, and I think we're the type of program that can afford to bring in a guy because our team would be welcoming, understand in the situation."
The situation is simple for both teams Saturday. Wisconsin, 34-3 at home since Bielema took over in 2006, is drooling for the opportunity to become the face of the Big Ten while Ohio State tries to cleanse itself from the smudges of the Jim Tressel era. Nebraska realizes that the past three teams to beat the Badgers at Camp Randall went on to BCS bowls. If that's where the Cornhuskers are hoping to go for the first time since 2000, Wisconsin is the first and biggest obstacle in its path.
"In our mindset, it's the mindset of all our coaches and our players, to go out there and play a solid game of football," freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell said. "We're going to try and play four perfect quarters of football."
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