LINCOLN, Neb. — When Nebraska joined the Big Ten Conference in 2011, a rivalry with the University of Wisconsin appeared to be a natural.
It seemed inevitable the two Big Reds would become instant enemies due to their winning football traditions — Nebraska for far longer than UW — and historical reliance on a power running game. When the Big Ten realigned in 2014, some thought their annual meeting might morph into the Ohio State-Michigan of the West Division. They even added a traveling trophy to spice up the rivalry, first playing for the Freedom Trophy in 2014.
Nine years in, however, UW-Nebraska is a rivalry in name only.
Rivalries aren’t manufactured in college sports, they arise organically. They escalate when teams meet every year, live in the same neighborhood, consistently play close games, throw wrenches into each other’s best seasons and contend for the same prizes.
Other than playing regularly, UW and Nebraska haven’t had enough of those rivalry builders. The Badgers have won seven of the eight games since Nebraska made its Big Ten debut at Camp Randall Stadium in 2011, including the past six. Five of the eight games have been lopsided UW victories and the Badgers’ only loss was by three points in Lincoln in 2012. And most fans still couldn’t pick the Freedom Trophy out of a police lineup, especially those from Nebraska, which hasn’t won it in five tries.
Much will be on the line for the 15th-ranked Badgers when they meet the disappointing Cornhuskers on Saturday at always-full Memorial Stadium, but neighborhood bragging rights — the heart and soul of any rivalry — won’t be one of the prizes.
UW must win to have a realistic chance at catching Minnesota in the division race, which trumps any notion of a rivalry. Asked during the week if there was added pressure because Nebraska is a division opponent and there is a trophy at stake, UW linebacker Zack Baun spoke candidly.
“No pressure,” Baun said. “It’s just another game, another football game. The trophy’s never left here, so I don’t think it’s a rivalry yet. Maybe it was before, but it definitely isn’t any more.”
The click-bait specialists ran with that statement and it quickly made its way to Lincoln, but the only part that was untrue was that UW-Nebraska was ever a rivalry. The schools did meet in the 2012 Big Ten title game, but UW won 70-31 and hasn’t lost in the series since. More important, the Cornhuskers’ storied program hasn’t really been relevant since it joined the Big Ten.
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But that’s not UW’s problem. Nebraska had nine or more wins every season from 1969 to 2001 and won five national championships during that time. The Cornhuskers remained a winning program until the past few years, when some dubious coaching hires finally caught up with them, especially on defense. Former Cornhuskers great Scott Frost was hired away from Central Florida in 2018 to restore the program to its former glory but, despite Nebraska being the trendy pick to win the West this season, it hasn’t happened.
The Cornhuskers are 2-4 in the Big Ten and 4-5 overall, though they have the dual-threat quarterback (Adrian Martinez), big-play receivers (J.D. Spielman and Wan’Dale Robinson) and size along the defensive front to make themselves a dangerous opponent for anyone. That last sentence should be enough to throw fear into the Badgers because the same thing was said about Illinois, which upset UW a month ago.
“I think it certainly is a big game for us,” coach Paul Chryst said. “I don’t know that you would have had to put a trophy along with it. Certainly have a ton of respect for that program. I do think this is a conference, once it split up, you don’t play every team every year. So therefore the teams you do play every year, for us the Big Ten West opponents, there naturally is a ... I don’t know if rivalry is the right word, but they’re big games. You know those players, you’ve competed against them. Often times you’ve gone against that staff before and it’s the same there. I think it’s a big game.”
He’ll get no argument from his players.
“It means a lot,” tailback Jonathan Taylor said. “Whenever there’s something on the line, we always want to win it. The biggest thing is it’s going to be a tough environment. The crowd gets very loud there. It’s going to be a good environment, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re focused, locked in.”
It’s a game UW has dominated — for one very simple reason: Nebraska, whose Black Shirts were one of college football’s best and most physical defenses for decades, has been unable to stop UW’s running game.
In the 2012 regular-season meeting, Nebraska held Montee Ball to 93 yards on 31 carries and, with the yardage from five sacks included, limited UW to 56 yards rushing as a team. Not coincidentally, that was Nebraska’s lone win over UW since it entered the Big Ten.
In the other seven meetings, UW has averaged 349.1 rushing yards per game and 7.6 yards per carry. In the five games where UW has rushed for 230 or more yards, it averaged 51.2 points. In the other three, it averaged 24.3 points.
In his first two games against Nebraska, Taylor rushed for 470 yards and five touchdowns. Until the Cornhuskers do something about that, this will remain the rivalry that wasn’t.