FBC,  Rex Burkhead

Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is averaging 17 yards per carry in limited action this season.

DAVE WEAVER — Associated Press

The value of senior running back Rex Burkhead to the Nebraska offense seems pretty obvious.

During his 38-game college football career, Burkhead has rushed for 100 yards in a game 12 times. The Cornhuskers are 12-0 in those instances, averaging 38 points a game.

Conversely, when Burkhead has double-digit carries and is held to less than 100 yards rushing, Nebraska is 5-8 since his debut in 2009. That includes a 48-17 loss to the University of Wisconsin last season at Camp Randall Stadium.

"A rough game," Burkhead said of his 18-carry, 96-yard showing in what was a dubious Big Ten Conference debut for the Cornhuskers. "It was kind of close at the beginning, but then …"

Nebraska had leads of 7-0 and 14-7 — temporarily quieting a rambunctious night-time sellout crowd of 81,834 — but the Badgers rattled off 34 unanswered points and went on to fashion a fairly stunning blowout.

"Great atmosphere, great venue," Burkhead said. "Hopefully it's a different story this year."

That script will unfold Saturday night at storied Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. Outside of it being a nationally televised Big Ten opener at a facility renowned for its game day personality, much has changed.

This time it's the 22nd-ranked Cornhuskers (3-1), favored by 13 points, who have the potent offense and the higher ranking.

This time it's the unranked Badgers (3-1) who have issues at quarterback and questions about the overall product.

While Burkhead is a constant, even that equation has been altered because he was limited to three carries in the first three games after suffering an injury to his left knee vs. Southern Mississippi on Sept. 1. He returned last week wearing a knee brace and churned for 119 yards on eight carries against Idaho State.

Without Burkhead, Nebraska had a chance to test-drive some relatively new speedsters out of the backfield. Sophomore Ameer Abdullah had two 100-yard outings and true freshman Imani Cross had one while collaborating with dual-threat junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who had one as well.

That productive balance helps explain why the Cornhuskers rank fifth nationally in rushing offense at 317.5 yards per game and lead the Big Ten with 37 rushing attempts that have gained 10 yards or more.

"Obviously Rex is a weapon, but we like our other backs, too," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said Tuesday during the weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference.

"Not having Rex in there has probably got those guys more snaps, more experience (and) increased our depth. But I had a lot of confidence in our backs going in. I like our stable of running backs a lot."

The group figures to get its sternest test of the season from the Badgers, who rank 13th nationally in run defense at 80.8 yards allowed per game. They've yielded 2.7 yards per rush — which is third in the Big Ten — and one touchdown on the ground through the first four games.

Of the Cornhuskers' first four opponents, only UCLA (82nd) is in the top 100 in terms of stopping the run.

A year ago, UW was able to control the line of scrimmage and force Martinez into throw. That wasn't his forte, given he completed only 11 of 22 passes and threw three interceptions.

Martinez looks to be a different player this season thanks in part to better throwing mechanics and enhanced confidence. In addition to being a running threat, he's completed 70.7 percent of his passes and has an excellent TD-to-interception ratio of 9-1.

Though vengeance is a natural story line, Pelini has a hard time comparing last season's loss to the Badgers and the task at hand.

"Different year, different teams, different challenges," he said. "They're a different team this year. We're a different team."

Can UW and its banged-up defensive line hold its own against such a high-powered running game?

Can the Cornhuskers get on track offensively and keep their mediocre run defense — ranked 11th in the Big Ten at 4.19 yards per rush — from getting exposed?

"Whoever executes the best on Saturday will win the football game," Pelini said. "That much I know."

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