ILL17

Nebraska hasn't lost a home game at night since 2008, when No. 4 Missouri beat the Huskers 52-17.

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- The University of Nebraska has played 51 home football games at night and won 46 of them.

It was 2008 the last time a team came to Lincoln and won an evening kickoff (No. 4 Missouri, 52-17). Since then, 20 opponents have tried and failed.

And still, the Huskers are likely to be underdogs each of the next two weeks in that exact situation — at 7 p.m. on Saturday night against No. 9 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) and 6 p.m. on Oct. 14 against No. 10 Ohio State (4-1, 2-0).

This does not constitute breaking news. It’s been clear for months that the Badgers and Buckeyes would likely represent the stiffest home tests of the season for Mike Riley’s team.

The Badgers are talented, fundamentally sound, have outscored opponents 97-14 in the second half and are averaging more than 6.5 yards per play. The Huskers have not shown offensive consistency for a full game, sport an improving-but-injury-depleted defense and have played perhaps the two worst teams in the Big Ten.

Still, the numbers are striking.

Many betting lines opened with UW as nearly two-touchdown favorites over the Huskers. Most are still hovering in double digits.

Can a team with such a dominant home mark in these games — and a roster that’s never experienced a home primetime loss — take the underdog role this week?

“I guess a little bit,” senior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said Monday. “You kind of have to treat every game as the same, it’s all the same challenge, but it is obviously a huge game. These guys are nationally ranked, they know exactly what they are doing, they’re very successful, and a very physical team. To get up for this one is pretty easy.

“You circle Wisconsin week at the beginning of the year and you know it’s coming.”

De’Mornay Pierson-El, have you ever felt like an underdog at Memorial Stadium?

“I just go out there and play, man,” he said. “I’m not tripping about that, I go out there and do my best. That’s all I’m worried about.”

Collectively, NU did what it had to against Rutgers and Illinois. Riley said he thought his team now carries some fresh enthusiasm into the meat of its conference schedule.

Redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Lee is fresh off a confidence-building, turnover-free night of his own, having completed 17 of 24 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns against the Illini.

But he also knows the awaiting challenge.

“I think everything goes up in terms of intensity, your heightened level of focus, your preparation, everything needs to take a step up when you’re playing a team like Wisconsin, or any team that is ranked as high as they are, have won games like they have,” Lee said. “It’s going to take an all-out effort, and is something we’re looking forward to.”

UW is the superior team on paper. Nebraska has clearly dominated at home in night games. The combined score of the teams’ two matchups in Lincoln (2012 and 2015) since the Huskers joined the Big Ten: 51-50 NU.

Last year, the teams needed overtime before UW prevailed, 23-17, in Madison.

“The thing that is evident in the games against Wisconsin, is you have to be the team that finishes,” Riley said. “We had our opportunities a couple years ago here to finish that game and didn’t do it and gave them an opportunity to get in position to kick a field goal. Then, we had the ball with a chance to score and win it last year and didn’t do that. It’s really about finishing the game at a high level, being able to produce and make plays, offense and defense.”

The Badgers have won five of six since NU entered the Big Ten. Three of those victories came by 31, 39 and 35 points. The other three have seen regulation end with a combined separation of five points.

Past results don’t necessarily inform the current matchup — neither team had its current head coach for four of the six meetings — and Nebraska hasn’t suddenly cured all of its ills. But the Huskers and Badgers are the only two teams in the Big Ten West without a league loss.

Still, ESPN’s Football Power Index pegs UW’s chances of leaving Lincoln unblemished at nearly 87 percent. Chicago Tribune columnist Teddy Greenstein went a step further, calling the Badgers’ odds of winning the West and advancing to the Big Ten title game at “approximately” 103 percent.

That doesn’t diminish what a win would mean for an NU program that’s been through plenty of tumult through its first five weeks.

“It’s pretty big for us. We’re ready for it,” redshirt freshman cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said. “Whatever we have to do to make sure we get these wins in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to do it. That’s just kind of the direction we’re headed in.”

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