Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer 11d

Nebraska's overlooked defense gives it a shot against Wisconsin

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Ninth-ranked Wisconsin, with its typically punishing ground game and improved passing attack, visits Nebraska on Saturday night, and frankly, it looks like a mismatch before the Badgers' first snap out of the jumbo offensive set.

These are, after all, the Cornhuskers who lost to Northern Illinois.

Nebraska is a rare double-digit underdog at home. This meeting, once envisioned as the West Division answer to Michigan-Ohio State, plays second or third fiddle among a mediocre slate of Big Ten games on the first weekend of October.

But is there an alternative viewpoint from which to assess Wisconsin's bid for a fifth straight win in the series?

Well, maybe Nebraska possesses an overlooked strong suit -- understandably shoved into the shadows as the Huskers recovered from two straight losses to beat Rutgers and Illinois, the Big Ten's worst teams.

"Confidence has been building week in and week out," Nebraska defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. "At least, I can speak for the defense."

Yes, the Nebraska defense, directed by Bob Diaco, quietly made major strides in September. Diaco, the former head coach at UConn and decorated Notre Dame assistant in his first season at Nebraska, is perhaps crafting this group back into a unit worthy of the Blackshirt moniker.

As frustration lingers about the Huskers' offensive progress and general sloppiness in the third season under coach Mike Riley, the relentless positivity of Diaco and his defense provides Nebraska with its best opportunity to pull an upset that might just reverse the mood around Lincoln.

"I would say there's an excitement about playing football right now for them that is contagious throughout the team," Riley said this week.

If so, credit Diaco's defense for keeping the Huskers from falling into the flames that licked at their feet after NIU scored twice in the first quarter on interception returns en route to that 21-17 win at Memorial Stadium in Week 3.

Nebraska has gone 115 minutes of game action over seven quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown. Over the past 14 quarters -- since it allowed six touchdowns in the first half of a 42-35 loss at Oregon -- the Nebraska defense has surrendered just 23 points and two touchdowns.

Opponents in the past three games have produced one play of more than 20 yards and six drives of more than 40 yards. Nebraska has allowed two rushes of more than 20 yards all season and less than 100 yards on the ground to four of five opponents, while reducing the passing yardage of its foes in each of five games.

Illinois gained zero yards in the final 22:49 of a 28-6 Nebraska win last week in Champaign. The Huskers have held three straight teams to fewer than 250 yards for the first time since 2003 and two straight to fewer than 200 yards for the first time since 2001.

And the pass rush came to life against the Illini as Nebraska recorded five sacks after managing just three in its first four games.

Those numbers might come as a surprise if you've followed the narrative that surrounds Nebraska, which fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst on Sept. 21.

Not so for Diaco. His 38-man roster of linebackers and linemen includes 24 freshmen and sophomores.

"We're a developing defense," he said.

Outwardly, Diaco ignored doubts about the Huskers' ability to adjust quickly to his 3-4 scheme. When Nebraska went to halftime at Oregon down 42-14, observers equally questioned his sanity and his game plan.

His defense has since played exceedingly well, albeit against suspect competition.

"You're either [going to] rise in that moment with competitive greatness or you're going to wilt," Diaco said three days after the loss to Oregon.

"The confidence comes because you prepare. And then you have something good that happens to you. And then you feel good about it. And then you prepare better because you feel good about it. And then something else good happens to you. And then you feel better about yourself, so you prepare harder. And then more good things happen."

His attitude is contagious, apparently.

"We put together a couple of good weeks, and I think it's a testament to how we've come back after facing adversity," Stoltenberg said.

"Guys usually aren't down these Mondays when we come back to work. Guys are excited to get to work. They're excited for another chance to get out on the field and show what they can do."

Nebraska has lost five of its past six games against opponents that came into the contest with a winning record.

It doesn't bode well for the Huskers on Saturday night.

Alternatively, Nebraska has won 20 straight night games in Lincoln. Its victims over that stretch include Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio State and a 2015 Michigan State team that advanced to the College Football Playoff. It includes Wisconsin, too -- in 2012, the Huskers' last win against the Badgers.

No doubt, Diaco would choose the latter perspective.

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