LINCOLN, Neb. — Even on a good day, playing a college football game at Nebraska can become a bad day.

The Cornhuskers have elite talent, their knowledgeable fans meld into a Sea of Red and venerable Memorial Stadium is packed, loud and intimidating.

But while there is never a good time to play at Nebraska, there is growing suspicion the University of Wisconsin might find itself in the wrong place at the wrong time when it meets the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten Conference opener Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. Indeed, this might be the worst possible time for UW's first visit to Lincoln since 1973.

Surprisingly, that belief has nothing to do with the Badgers' anemic offensive production through four non-conference games or the fact freshman quarterback Joel Stave will be making only his second college start. No, that belief has more to do with the team that calls Memorial Stadium home than it does the Badgers.

Simply put, the Cornhuskers are mad.

Mad at UW. Mad at the Big Ten. Mad at the world.

But especially UW. A year ago, Nebraska made its Big Ten debut at UW with high hopes — realistic or not — of dominating its new conference after leaving the competitive Big 12. UW and Nebraska were both undefeated, ranked in the top eight nationally and had their sights set on the Rose Bowl.

Nebraska took a 14-7 lead on that electric night in Madison, but UW scored the next five touchdowns and went on to a 48-17 victory that created a buzz nationally and was an eye-opener for the Cornhuskers and their expectant fans. It also was a prelude to a disappointing 5-3 conference record and third-place finish in the Legends Division, two things that were unthinkable for the proud Cornhuskers when they stepped onto the field at Camp Randall Stadium.

In what promises to be an electric atmosphere Saturday night, Nebraska will try to do to UW what UW did to it last year.

Back then, Nebraska was walking into an unfamiliar setting where visitors seldom win while facing a ranked team that had a great tailback, one of the nation's hottest quarterbacks and a lot to prove. One year later, UW finds itself in virtually the same situation, only in reverse.

Just as the Badgers were strongly motivated by the notion of upholding the Big Ten's honor against a conference newbie last year, the Cornhuskers have been pointing toward this game for a long time. Only their motivation is revenge. They want payback.

"Any time you get killed, you want to come back and make it seem like the year before was a fluke," UW defensive end David Gilbert said. "That's anybody who loses."

Gilbert may be in Madison, but he clearly has his finger on the pulse of the Cornhuskers. Their approach to this game began to take shape moments after the last one ended.

"I'm embarrassed," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said then. "I apologize to the fans of Nebraska because that was a joke."

Pelini had changed his tune this week, insisting he's moved past that game — "Different time, different place, different football team," he said — and that all losses hurt equally when you're a competitor. But based on the comments of his players this week, not everyone in the Nebraska program has moved on quite as easily. And that was before Gilbert lobbed a stink bomb into the Nebraska camp by saying quarterback Taylor Martinez was soft and had a poor throwing motion.

"We're really looking forward to this week, just because of what happened last year," said Martinez, who threw a career-high three interceptions in that game. "That still haunts us in the back of our minds. Everyone's pumped up for it."

When Martinez says everyone, he means everyone. The Cornhuskers are to Nebraska what the Green Bay Packers are to Wisconsin, so the Badgers will be up against an entire state Saturday night.

"It's personal," Nebraska safety P.J. Smith said. "We've still got a nasty taste in our mouth from last year. We got embarrassed."

UW's greatest asset as a rare double-digit underdog is it has comparatively little to lose. Given the sorry state of affairs in the Leaders Division, it looks like UW's game at Purdue on Oct. 13 will determine the division's representative in the Big Ten title game. This is not a must-win game for the Badgers. Meanwhile, all the pressure is on Nebraska, which needs a victory to establish itself as a contender in the more competitive Legends Division.

Of course, the Badgers have plenty to clean up in their own house before they start worrying about what's going on inside Nebraska's helmets. They are, however, bracing for the worst.

"They may be angry," linebacker Chris Borland said. "I think any competitor would be upset after last season's game. They're a very talented team, so we're expecting their best shot."

Just like the Cornhuskers got from the Badgers last year.


Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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