Wisconsin football photo: Badgers celebrate Quintez Cephus' third-quarter touchdown

Wisconsin Badgers players celebrate a touchdown catch by Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Quintez Cephus (87) during the third quarter of a game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

M.P. KING -- State Journal

LINCOLN, Neb. — When Nebraska joined the Big Ten Conference in 2011, many envisioned a dynamic football rivalry developing between the Cornhuskers and the University of Wisconsin, a notion that gained steam when the schools were placed in the West Division during the 2014 realignment.

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened.

Though many of the games between the teams have been closely contested, the rivalry never took off in large part because Nebraska's program hasn't been as consistently competitive in the Big Ten as conference officials hoped when the once-proud Cornhuskers program came on board. Seldom have the games had a direct bearing on the division race.

Maybe this year's game will help. When the 10th-ranked Badgers met the Cornhuskers Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, the teams were finally playing for something. First place in the division was at stake.

OK, so it's early. Really early. But due to the sorry state of the West so far this season, UW and Nebraska entered the game as the only undefeated teams in the division.

So, no, this wasn't just another game. In fact, it was huge. The winner would take a giant step toward securing a spot in the Big Ten championship game. And for UW, a victory would give it a great chance to head into the late-season portion of its schedule undefeated.

As usual in this series, it wasn't easy, but UW kept its self-proclaimed hopes for a national title alive with a huge 38-17 victory over the loaded-for-bear Cornhuskers.

"It's big," linebacker Garret Dooley said. "They were 2-0 in Big Ten play and obviously they were in first place. To just come into a great environment like this and be able to handle them and get that win is huge."

The Badgers set up their future by going back to their past. In the second half, UW asserted its physical dominance along both lines of scrimmage, something that has earmarked the series since it resumed in 2011. That would have been unthinkable during Nebraska's glorious past, but the truth is UW now does to opponents what those 1990s Nebraska teams once did. The Badgers are playing the Cornuskers' game, only they're better at it.

After quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw an ill-advised pick-six on UW's second possession of the second half, a miscue that allowed Nebraska to tie the game at 17-17, UW's power running game took over and the Badgers are now 6-1 against their rivals with five wins in a row since 2011.

Time and again, Johnathan Taylor and UW's cadre of tailbacks took the ball and pounded into the line, wearing down Nebraska's defense. After Hornibrook's touchdown pass to wide receiver Quintez Cephus capped a 10-play, 93-yard answer to Nebraska's game-tying score, UW ran the ball on its final 22 plays, resulting in two more time-consuming touchdown drives.

"I think that was our goal the whole time, just to play our brand of football," tight end Troy Fumagalli said. "Finally, we wore them down toward the end there. It was a great finish."

Not to be outdone, UW's defense stymied a Nebraska running game that had been effective in the first half. The Cornhuskers rushed for only 9 yards and had a mere 68 yards overall in the second half.

"I think we all realized that if we go out there and play our own game then we're going to be one of the top defenses in the nation," Dooley said. "That's what we're shooting for and that's what we were able to do the second half."

The game figured to be difficult for the Badgers because this time Nebraska was ready for UW. The Cornhuskers, in a state of disarray after a loss to Northern Illinois, had confidence and momentum after opening the Big Ten with wins over Rutgers and Illinois. They also had a sense of urgency with the Nebraska media calling it the biggest game in coach Mike Riley's three-year tenure. The Cornhuskers also chose this game to roll out the members of their 1997 team, the last one to win a national title. Finally, the prospect of a night game at Memorial Stadium, where Nebraska has won 20 straight night home games, figured to test UW's mettle.

Put it all together and Nebraska, while an afterthought nationally, was good enough to expose the problems that cropped up in UW's first four games.

The Badgers have been slow starters offensively in every game and they were again Saturday night. They struggled throughout the opening half and, if not for Taylor's late 75-yard touchdown run, the offense would have scored only three points before halftime.

Another occasional problem cropped up in the second half. Hornibrook has struggled with accuracy when he to reset his feet and find receivers late. It happened again on his pick-six, though Hornibrook rebounded nicely.

It was all UW after that, though, and now the Badgers face Big Ten lightweights Purdue, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana in their next four games. That's why this one is so important. They could go into their final stretch -- Iowa, Michigan, at Minnesota -- with a 9-0 overall record and a 6-0 Big Ten mark.

"It's huge for the development of this season," Fumagalli said. "Just having that adversity strike us this early and being able to respond to it, I think it's huge. We'll take that with us and move forward, knowing we can do that in any scenario."

The Badgers are going to have to play better than they have in the first five games, but they're still right where they need to be.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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