Nebraska, Wisconsin follow same plan

Nebraska's last win in Madison came in 1966 on a day when Cornhuskers linebacker Barry Alvarez recorded an interception. His 25-yard return on that pick, though, led to more grief than glory.

"Guys still tease me about that to this day," Alvarez said last week. "They say that instead of going, 'He's at the 50 … the 45 … the 40,' the announcer said, 'He's at the 50 … the 49 … the 48 …'"

Alvarez can take the slow jokes knowing that he played in the Orange and Sugar bowls during his career and was Nebraska's leading tackler in 1967. And Wisconsin fans would have gladly accepted that drubbing back in 1966 had they known what they would receive from Alvarez in return.

The College Football Hall of Famer (and "Entourage" guest star) turned the Badgers into a national power after taking over as head coach in 1990. You could say he used some Lincoln logs to build his program.

"A lot of my philosophy was based upon the foundation I had starting at Nebraska," he said.

Nebraska and Wisconsin will meet Saturday for the first time since 1974. They're both 4-0, ranked in the top eight of both major polls and aspiring to win conference and national titles. For the Cornhuskers, it's inauguration day for league play in their new conference.

"I think everybody in our athletic department is anxious to see how we measure up in the Big Ten," Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne said.

The Huskers must measure up to themselves, in a way. After all, they provided the model for the Badger boom. They're the ones trying to recapture that model.

Alvarez's first coaching jobs were at Nebraska high schools. He aimed to emulate his mentor, Huskers coaching legend Bob Devaney, and closely followed Devaney's career path. That even included his transition to athletic director after coaching and his grooming of a successor on his staff -- Osborne for Devaney, Bret Bielema for Alvarez.

Almost immediately upon taking over at Wisconsin, Alvarez implemented a Nebraska-style walk-on program. For decades, the Huskers had bolstered their roster with players whose love for Big Red exceeded their need for scholarships. Many of those walk-ons would develop into stars, and a few became All-Americans. Like at Nebraska, Alvarez brought in 20 to 25 walk-ons per year, and several went on to become team captains and contributors to Rose Bowl teams. Starting receiver Jared Abbrederis and fullback Bradie Ewing are among the current Badgers continuing that tradition.

Alvarez also based his team's philosophy on a long-held Nebraska bedrock: the power run game led by an immovable offensive line.

"When you take a look at the type of kids we can recruit, we will consistently have big kids here," he said. "We're not going to have a lot of speed, per se, in the state and not an overabundance of Division I players. But we will have linemen."

Offensive lines provided the engines of the great Cornhuskers teams from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Nebraska ran the option, in large part as a response to Oklahoma, while Alvarez preferred to rely on big backs running downhill. But Osborne -- a graduate assistant with the Huskers when Alvarez was in school -- says the styles are otherwise close relatives.

"We always maintained a very strong power game, and that's what I've of course seen at Wisconsin," Osborne said. "Probably a lot of the stock in Wisconsin is similar to that in Nebraska. There are a fair number of Scandinavian, Northern European types who tend to be fairly big people. So one of the good things we always had is access to linemen."

Alvarez used that formula to take the Badgers to three Rose Bowls, and Bielema has kept it going with 49 wins his first four years plus a Pasadena trip last season. Meanwhile, Nebraska suffered a lull in the past decade as it got away from its roots. Bill Callahan -- who ironically was Alvarez's first offensive line coach at Wisconsin -- tried bringing the West Coast offense to the plains. He was fired after going 27-22 in four years.

"I was surprised by that," Alvarez said. "He did what they were doing in the NFL, spreading it out and throwing the ball all over. Back then, they were facing some of the better offenses in the country [in the Big 12], and when you do that, you'd better give your defense a rest a little bit."

Current coach Bo Pelini returned to a more power-based offensive game plan, although it does use some spread elements. The Huskers are young on their offensive line, but things looked very familiar two weeks ago against Washington. They started three offensive linemen who were former walk-ons, and they repeatedly pounded the ball on the ground in the I-formation in the second half to salt away the victory.

"You can see there's an emphasis on their offensive line as well," Bielema said. "They're kind of unique in that they roll a lot of people in there. We kind of stay with our five big bodies unless somebody gets injured. But there is a lot of similarity there."

Wisconsin is no longer just a handoff factory thanks to the arrival of quarterback Russell Wilson. He gives the team a new dimension in the passing game with his mobility. Yet the offense still begins behind the running game led by Montee Ball and James White and that massive offensive line, which makes Wilson so dangerous on play-action rollouts.

Those power principles are working for both teams this season. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring at 48.5 points per game, while Nebraska is not far behind at 42.8. The Huskers rank eighth nationally in rushing at 272.5 yards per game, while Wisconsin is 13th at 245.5.

"Obviously, Coach Alvarez got that place going at Wisconsin," Pelini said. "I think it worked for him, and it sets up the formula for what they do now."

Nebraska hasn't won a conference title or gone to a BCS bowl game since the 2001 season. To get back there, the Huskers must beat the defending Big Ten champs. In other words, they have to smash the model they helped create.

Brian Bennett covers the Big Ten and Notre Dame for ESPN.com.