Madison, WI (SportsNetwork.com) - Two of the best running backs in the country will be in action at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday afternoon, as Ameer Abdullah and the Nebraska Cornhuskers visit Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers.
This marquee matchup could be without one of its most alluring stars, or at least without one at 100 percent, as Abdullah is on the injured list this week with a gimpy knee. He is listed as probable, so it appears he will play, but will he be at full strength?
That is certainly not the best news for a team in the thick of the Big Ten title race. The Cornhuskers enter this contest sporting an 8-1 overall record and a 4-1 record in league play, which is tied for the West Division lead. Their most recent triumph was a 35-14 decision over Purdue on Nov. 1, their third straight win overall.
Wisconsin is one of the two teams Nebraska is tied with atop the West Division standings, with Minnesota being the other. The Badgers have recovered nicely from a 20-14 upset loss to Northwestern in early October, as they have ripped off four straight victories since. They are 7-2 overall, including a perfect 5-0 mark at home.
This season the winner between these teams will be awarded the Freedom Trophy, a new piece of rivalry hardware akin to other Big Ten commemorative pieces, such as the Little Brown Jug (Michigan/Minnesota) and the Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana/Purdue). It is an obvious attempt to pump up a short-lived rivalry, which has featured only eight previous meetings. Each team has won four times, with Wisconsin's 70-31 triumph in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game the most recent outcome.
As long as Abdullah is healthy, Nebraska is one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers rank third in the conference in total yards (490.6 ypg) and scoring (40.4 ppg). In fact, they are one of only three teams in the league to be posting more than 40 points per game.
Abdullah is a major part of that offensive firepower. He has rushed for 1,250 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, even after missing time in the win over Purdue. He is third in the Big Ten in rushing yards and second in touchdowns.
If he cannot perform at his usual level, Nebraska is lucky to have a solid backup in Imani Cross, as well as a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong Jr., who is not afraid to run with the ball. Cross rushed for 66 yards and two scores against Purdue, and Armstrong picked up 70 yards and a touchdown. Cross has 332 yards and five touchdowns on 64 carries overall this season, averaging 5.2 yards per carry along the way.
"I just reminded myself that this is not new. This is football. I've gotten carries before," Cross said following the Purdue game. "Just because one person is not around while I'm getting those carries doesn't make it any different. I just had to focus on the task at hand."
Armstrong Jr. will need to be more effective as a passer this week, especially if he Abdullah is not at full strength. The Nebraska quarterback threw for only 118 yards on 8-of-21 passing and was intercepted twice against Purdue. A repeat performance would be disastrous against a Wisconsin team that has a lot more skill than the Boilermakers.
"I'm the one with the ball in my hands," Armstrong said, taking responsibility for the mistakes he made. "I have to make the final decision of where I go with the ball and unfortunately I made the decision that came back to haunt us."
Perhaps expanding the number of receivers he throws to would help. Kenny Bell (34 receptions, 577 yards, two TDs) and Jordan Westerkamp (33 receptions, 600 yards, four TDs) are the only players on the team with more than 20 receptions. Abdullah (13 receptions, 169 yards, two TDs) is the only other player with more than 10.
Defensively speaking, Nebraska is not one of the Big Ten's best squads. The Cornhuskers rank eighth in the league in total defense. However, by allowing only 339.8 yards per game, they are among the top-25 teams in the country in the category.
Priority No. 1 for the Cornhuskers defense will be stopping Melvin Gordon, a task very few teams have been able to accomplish. Gordon leads the country in rushing yards (1,501) and rushing touchdowns (19), while averaging a robust 7.58 yards per carry. He ran for 205 yards and a score last time out, marking his eighth 100-yard effort and third 200-yard game of the season.
With Gordon paving the way, Wisconsin sits fourth in the Big Ten in total offense (478.3 ypg).
The quarterback position has been less of a certainty, but Joel Stave seems to have earned the starting job. He threw for a season-high 219 yards on 19-of-21 passing against Purdue last weekend. He has completed only 53.8 percent of his pass attempts for 642 yards overall, with five touchdowns compared to four interceptions.
Wisconsin's receiving corps is led by Alex Erickson (35 receptions, 467 yards, three TDs), who is the only player on the team with more than 20 catches.
There is no team in the Big Ten better on defense than Wisconsin, which leads the country in total defense (251.1 ypg). The Badgers absolutely dominated the Boilermakers last weekend, allowing only 230 yards and 11 first downs.