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Lucas at Large: Herbstreit weighs in on Badgers, matchup with Nebraska

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FB_110930_Herbstreit_Kirk_ESPN.jpgPrior to Thursday's practice, UW coach Bret Bielema and ESPN/ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit were engaged in an animated conversation that was more of an extension of their friendship than a chalk talk.

During his network radio show that night, Bielema playfully suggested that Herbstreit was a "nerd'' when they first met as 22-year-old seniors at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon in Chicago.

Bielema, the Iowa nose tackle, and Herbstreit, the Ohio State quarterback, went out for pizza and discovered that they had many things in common. They've enjoyed each other's company since.

"When his career was beginning to grow,'' Bielema said, "I remember Kirk coming to Iowa City as a sideline reporter for ESPN Radio and from there he kind of blossomed into what you see today.

"I know sometimes he doesn't give the Badgers a lot of love and sometimes people don't like him, but we have an unbelievable relationship. We talk once a week if not more and send texts.''

Herbstreit, who has won back-to-back Sports Emmys for Outstanding Studio Analyst, and Bielema bantered for about 20 minutes before practice got under way in the McClain Facility.

"That's probably the highlight of my job,'' said Herbstreit, 42, who grew up answering to a coach. His dad, Jim, was a halfback for the Buckeyes and later an assistant under Woody Hayes.

His ESPN/ABC job, he said, entails  "going all over the country, talking with coaches, getting in the film room with them and having a chance to really find out how these guys tick on a personal level.''

So what makes Bielema tick?

"He has not forgotten what it's like to be a player; he relates very well to players,'' Herbstreit said. "He has also surrounded himself with a great (coaching) staff.

"He's got people that he trusts to coach on both sides of the ball, which has freed him up to be more of an administrator over the top of everything else.

"At the end of the day, if you're a parent and you're going to send your son to play for Bret, you're going to know that he will always have your son's best interests in mind.''

Wilson changes Badgers' dynamic
As the stretching exercises were ending, Russell Wilson jogged over and shook Herbstreit's hand. Briefly trading pleasantries, Herbstreit promised to touch base with Wilson after practice.

"When I heard that he was looking to go to Auburn or Wisconsin,'' Herbstreit said, "I personally was hoping that he would go to Wisconsin only because I knew what was returning in Madison.

"That was the one position (quarterback) -- with Scott (Tolzien) leaving -- that was a huge question mark for the Badgers.

"So when he decided to come here, I thought if he picks up the offense, it could be really scary how good they could be.''

Herbstreit recognized that Wilson, a three-year starter at NC State, would bring a certain level of maturity to the position. "But it's still a difference scheme, different terminology,'' he said.

From the beginning, Herbstreit noted, Wilson was committed to devouring the playbook.

"What people don't understand is that it's not just the playbook,'' he said. "It's the adjustments that are associated with each play based on the coverage you see. It's remarkable what he has done.

"His poise and accuracy are two things that stand out for me. I've studied him all week. For any quarterback sitting in the pocket, there's a tendency when things aren't there to take off and create.

"Even though he has that ability to make plays with his feet, he's more than willing to let the play develop and be patient in the pocket. He has such trust in his teammates.

"To me, it's the way he has fit in from an intangible standpoint that's been very special.''

Toon makes connection with new QB
Herbstreit's film study confirmed the chemistry between Wilson and wide receiver Nick Toon.

"They're both appreciating one another,'' he said. "When you're a quarterback -- whether you want to admit it or not -- you always have 'your guy.'

"And even though you have to read a defense before you make a decision on where to go with the ball, there's always 'your guy' that you're looking for and, clearly, Toon is that guy for Wilson.''

The Badgers have been dominating opposing defenses, but Herbstreit cautioned against drawing too many conclusions off the non-conference sample, especially given the strength of their opponents.

"Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense will challenge Wisconsin more than it has been challenged all year,'' he said. "This is where we'll really find out how good the Badgers are.

"Up to this point, they've done everything they're supposed to do. They've beaten up on a lot of inferior teams.

"But now here's a chance for Wisconsin. If the Badgers can go out and win this game, they can earn a lot more credibility on a national level than maybe what they've received so far.''

Huskers back in contention
There's no question Nebraska has once again become a solid football program under Bo Pelini. But there is a question on how the Huskers' athleticism and physicality will translate in the Big Ten.

"In the Big 12, their defense was built for more of a 4-2-5 with five and, sometimes, six defensive backs,'' Herbstreit said, "because everybody is spreading you out and throwing sideline to sideline.

"Now they're going to face more teams that are going to try and run the football at them, right down hill. There's a transition period defensively for what they're going through.

"Bo Pelini played with me at Ohio State. He was a captain, he grew up in Ohio. Much like Bret, he knows the Big Ten. He'll be able to prepare his players for what they're about to face.

"But you have what you have. It's the same thing with Brady Hoke at Michigan. They're in a transition period and Brady is doing the best that he can.

"Eventually you have to go out and find personnel that fits your team and what you do and that might take Nebraska couple of years to do that.''

Building perception of the Big Ten
Even with the addition of the Cornhuskers, the Big Ten is still trying to earn respect, Herbstreit said. As such, Saturday's winner will not automatically join the Big Boy Football fraternity.

SEC teams have won five straight national championships.

"The perception nationally of the Big Ten is that it's a step or two down,'' he said, "so even if you win this game, you're on the outside looking in. That's the reality of playing in the Big Ten.''

That won't change, Herbstreit added, "Until we as a conference change that perception by winning some heavyweight nonconference games and (BCS) bowl games.

"With that being said, Wisconsin takes a much higher step (nationally) if it beats Nebraska than Nebraska would if it beats Wisconsin. The opportunity is there for Wisconsin.

"People respect where Wisconsin's program is with Bret as the guy in charge. But playing in the Big Ten, the reality is that you need help in order to get up there with LSU, Oklahoma and Alabama.''

3 Comments

SOme of this article makes sense, but some of it is pure bunk. Mr. Herbstreit suggests that Wisconsin has more to gain than Nebraska, and personally I think that's BS. For Nebraska to win this game would be a huge accomplishment, even though they beat 2 top ten teams last year.

For Nebraska to win this game, they'll have to put together the best game they've played in the Pelini era, and that would be a giant leap for the program. Wisconsin stands to gain more in what way? They win, and all that does is say once more, they did what was expected of them. So, who has more to gain? The Huskers . . . GO BIG RED ! ! !

Would love to see the Badgers play a tougher pre-conference schedule. That would be good for the program and carry more respect for the Big Ten Conference. Is there a possibility of getting to face teams like Texas, Alabama or LSU in the future for the Badgers?

I don't think it makes much sense for the badgers to play a tougher non-conference schedule. I understand it gains more respect for the big 10 and puts the badgers in nice standing when it comes to the national championship, but is the risk really worth the reward? There is no guarantee the badgers will be up in the talks for the NC. If the badgers lose those games, like they almost did with Arizona State last season, then they have much more to lose. I think the badgers should play easier games in the non-conference games, and build their confidence while working out the kinks in their game. That way they'll be prepared for the Big 10 in conference games. If they go undefeated in the Big 10, they're guaranteed to make it to an at large bowl and possibly the National Championship.

ON WISCONSIN