Nebraska vs. Wisconsin features, 10/29

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst (left) greets Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez prior to the game Oct. 29, 2016, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

Don't tell me you saw it coming. I won't believe you.

I don't even want to hear it from Wisconsin football fans.

Nobody could've envisioned Wisconsin owning a 6-1 record against Nebraska since the Huskers started Big Ten play in 2011.

"Must be lucky," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said this week.

There's virtually no luck involved in running the ball 22 straight plays and holding it for 13 minutes, 16 seconds, as Wisconsin did during the fourth quarter last season against Nebraska while prevailing 38-17. You wonder what Alvarez, a former Husker linebacker, was thinking all the while.

"I love it," the 71-year-old said during a wide-ranging interview in advance of the Huskers-Badgers game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin.

"I once won a bowl game completing one pass, so I don't have a problem with 22 straight runs as long as we're moving the sticks," added Alvarez, an extremely successful former Wisconsin head coach (1990-2005).

He referred to the 1996 Copper Bowl in which 5-foot-10, 260-pound running back Ron Dayne hammered Utah to the tune of 246 yards on 30 carries. That was Wisconsin football in full bloom. In many respects, it still is Wisconsin football. Control the ball with a big, punishing offensive line and hard-charging running backs. Win the field-position battle. Be sound fundamentally and don't cripple yourself with critical errors.

Twice during our interview, Alvarez emphasized the importance of a team being "sound," perhaps mindful of Nebraska's error-prone ways in Scott Frost's first season as the program's head coach. Perhaps Barry was subtly sending a message: You don't play this sport as well as we do, at least not right now.

Alvarez is forever a topic whenever these teams meet because of his deep respect for Bob Devaney and the former Nebraska head coach's rugged style of play. Alvarez played for Devaney. Then, as a high school coach, Alvarez used the sophisticated strength and conditioning program that started at NU under Devaney.

"My foundation is Nebraska," said Alvarez, raised in a coal-mining town near Pittsburgh. "I grew up in an area that favored blue-collar, hard-nosed football. That's the way I learned it. I went to Nebraska and it was the same thing."

Alvarez speaks with pride about his Nebraska football roots and what Wisconsin's program has become. The Badgers have played in five Rose Bowls since 1999, the year of Nebraska's last conference championship. Fourth-year Badger head coach Paul Chryst is 37-8 (.822) overall at the school and 23-4 in the Big Ten (.852). During the same period, the Huskers are 19-23 (.452) and 12-16 (.428).

Frost is trying to reverse the program's fortunes with an identity built around an up-tempo offense.

"There's not just one way to get the job done," Alvarez said. "But whatever you're doing, it has to be sound, and everybody has to be on the same page."

Frost is struggling to get all his players on the same page as he establishes the program's foundation. Alvarez understands the challenge. After all, he was 1-10 in his first season as Wisconsin's head coach. In his fourth season, the Badgers won the Rose Bowl.

"When you go into a situation like I did, you had to change the culture, and that's not easy," Alvarez said. "That involves every person that touches the program. That's people who work in the cafeteria, that's ticket people, equipment people, video people. Everyone who touches the program has to understand what's expected of them and what they're going to be held accountable for. I'm talking about secretaries — everyone.

"And you don't have a chance if you don't recruit well. You have to profile the type of kids you want. What I did was look at our state and the fact it's going to produce big guys because of the heritage of people. You have Germans, Scandinavians, big Swedes. You have big-boned people, so I figured we'd get linemen consistently. We could teach them how to play football."

Over the course of time, Wisconsin formed an unmistakable identity. Nebraska fans can recite its qualities as well as anyone.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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