It sneaked up on us sort of fast.

Nebraska enters Big Ten play and the gantlet part of its 2012 football schedule, in one fell swoop. Yeah, the beleaguered Big Ten still can produce a gantlet.

In the next five games, we'll find out if the usual mind-numbing offseason hyperbole about the Huskers was accurate or merely that pink whipped cream-type stuff you find at salad bars.

Bring on the meat and potatoes.

Bring on Wisconsin on Saturday night. The Badgers (3-1) stumbled through their nonconference schedule, but pack enough punch to make this fight last deep into the night.

Then, in order, bring on Ohio State, a bye week, Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State. Of those four teams, only Michigan comes to Lincoln.

After playing a forgiving nonconference schedule, it's difficult to gauge Nebraska's readiness for such a rugged stretch.

Southern Miss is 0-3 and just allowed 369 rushing yards (and 560 total) to Western Kentucky.

UCLA (3-1) ripped through Nebraska's defense for 653 yards before gaining 444 in a 27-20 home loss to Oregon State, an anemic team defensively last season.

Arkansas State (2-2) is an ordinary Sun Belt team, and Idaho State (1-2) is, well, perhaps capable of winning our state's Class A high school championship. Perhaps.

None of Nebraska's nonconference opponents match Wisconsin's determination to physically whip foes. The Badgers boast five behemoths along their offensive line (average size: 6-foot-5, 328 pounds).

The defense is solid, though far from spectacular.

Badger head coach Bret Bielema has six new full-time assistants this season. That was bound to be a liability. Staff changes notwithstanding, UW still tries to bully defenses with a potent ground game.

"They've done a good job of continuing their brand, and building on that physicality," said Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis. "That's the strength of their team."

Yes, Wisconsin wants it to be a strength. However, the Badgers rank 11th in the conference in rushing offense, averaging 143.0 yards per game. They managed a meager 35 rushing yards (207 total) in a 10-7 loss Sept. 8 at Oregon State.

Their defense has hemorrhaged big plays.

They needed a missed field goal to escape with a victory against Utah State.

They got little respect this week from the oddsmakers in Vegas, who made the Huskers 11 1/2-point favorites.

Maybe the Vegas wiseguys haven't noticed Nebraska's greatest vulnerability — its front four, or even front seven.

This game will be won (or lost) up front, Husker defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. How well will the Huskers hold up against gifted tailback Montee Ball and the Badgers' running game? Will Kaczenski's crew generate a pass rush that rattles redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, a former walk-on?

Those questions are of utmost importance.

Nebraska can draw motivation from last October's 48-17 loss in Madison, Wis. The Huskers can generate confidence from knowing what to expect in their second season in the Big Ten.

"I think the biggest thing you learn in the first go-round is it's fairly easy to watch things on film and have a good idea of how teams are going to try to attack you, but you don't have a great feel for their physicality or talent level until you actually play them," Papuchis said.

Nebraska's nonconference schedule of spread-oriented offenses did little to prepare the Huskers for the Badgers' heavy-punching style. However, note that Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern all feature spread offenses in varying degrees of prominence.

In other words, Nebraska's long night against UCLA could be helpful in the long run.

"If you're any good as a coach or player, you better learn from experiences like that," Papuchis said. "If you don't take something from those experiences, it really is a waste and shame."

We'll learn plenty more about Nebraska — perhaps all we need to know — in Saturday night's game and the four that follow. Is junior Taylor Martinez a championship-caliber quarterback? Can his offensive line operate consistently enough to help produce a conference crown? Is Rex Burkhead healthy enough to ramble for 100-yards-plus per game?

"I have a pretty good handle on who we are and what we're good at," Papuchis said of the defense.

He'll know much more late Saturday night.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or

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