David Gilbert, UW football vs. UTEP

Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert (11) nearly intercepts a blocked pass by linebacker Chris Borland (44) in the end zone in the second quarter of the Badgers' 37-26 victory over UTEP on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal

University of Wisconsin football players are supposed to have a "Next Man In" mentality when it comes to injuries.

But what happens when it becomes the next man in, for the next man in, for the next man in?

The Badgers came out of the UTEP game with injury issues involving four of their top five defensive ends, although they hope to get a couple back for Saturday night's game at Nebraska.

The timing couldn't be worse against an explosive Cornhuskers offense averaging a Big Ten Conference-best 48.5 points per game.

The edges of UW's defense will be tested in two significant ways, in the option game and by the elusiveness of speedy junior quarterback Taylor Martinez.

Not to mention, the Cornhuskers are smarting after losing their first Big Ten game, 48-17, to the Badgers last season at Camp Randall Stadium.

UW defensive line coach Charlie Partridge knows the challenges awaiting his players in Lincoln, Neb. But what Partridge doesn't know yet is how many healthy bodies he will have at end.

"We have a lot of respect for the playmakers on their team, a lot of respect for their program," Partridge said. "We know what they bring to the table."

Because of the injuries, three ends had career highs in snaps last week in the 37-26 victory over UTEP.

Junior Tyler Dippel, who made his first start, got more than 50 snaps. He suffered a contusion when he got leg-whipped late in the game but is expected to be fine.

Sophomore Konrad Zagzebski also had more than 30 plays and redshirt freshman Jesse Hayes was in the mid-20s.

Junior starter David Gilbert, who left the game in the third quarter with a toe injury, is expected to play this week. Two others who have started games but missed last week — Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (broken hand) — remain questionable.

UW's defense had problems containing a mobile quarterback in Utah State's Chuckie Keeton two weeks ago. He broke containment four times, including two crucial third-down conversions. One of them was a 36-yard completion on third-and-10 late in the game, which set up a potential game-winning field goal that missed.

The defense did a better job last week, but facing somebody as fast as Martinez is an entirely different challenge.

Much has been made of Martinez's improvement as a passer — he leads the conference in pass efficiency at 180.9 — which Partridge said is apparent on video.

"His throwing motion has improved a lot from the last year. … His release is quicker; he's delivering a higher ball," Partridge said. "He's a much better quarterback than a year ago."

Martinez's rushing numbers are down from last season, with 37 carries for 191 yards, an average of 47.8 per game. He rushed for 874 yards last season, an average of 67.2 per game. But Nebraska still leads the conference in rushing by nearly 100 yards per game with an average of 317.5.

UW coach Bret Bielema said Martinez looks even faster this year and his improvement as a passer makes him a more dangerous runner.

"If he's getting an open hole, he can outrun any DB we've got and any linebacker," Bielema said. "That's a tremendous challenge for us and I think that's just doubled or amplified because of what he's been able to do in the play-action passes off of it."

One of the best things UW's defense did a year ago against Nebraska is use a contained pass rush to not let Martinez make plays outside of the pocket. He was held to 61 rushing yards on 20 carries, with a long of 11 yards. He was 11-for-22 passing, with three interceptions and no touchdowns, while being sacked twice.

Despite being shorthanded, Partridge was encouraged by the defense's four sacks last week, including two by middle linebacker Chris Borland as a pass rusher in the nickel defense.

The coaches paired faster linemen with Borland in the 3-3-5 alignment and it paid dividends, starting out with Dippel and Gilbert inside and Hayes at end. Having more speed around him made Borland more effective, especially on stunts, in which one lineman loops behind another one.

While the linemen must be disciplined and stay in their pass-rush lanes against Martinez, they can't be timid or scared. Partridge said they must also change things up to get pressure on Martinez.

"There's a point where you've got to heat him up a little bit and mix in things, so you're not doing the same all of the time and end up paying for that," Partridge said.