LINCOLN, Neb. – It came down to a battle of wills. And some bad luck.
Down on the scoreboard with just more than a minute remaining, the Badgers attempted to run senior tailback Montee Ball off the right side on a fouth-and-1 behind their usually-dominant offensive line. But Saturday night, in front of a raucous Memorial Stadium crowd, the Cornhusker defense would have none of it.
A Badger miscommunication on the play call between Danny O’Brien and Ball allowed the ball to come loose, sealing the Huskers’ (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) 30-27 win over the Badgers (3-2, 0-1) in a game the Badgers led, at one point, by 17.
Leading the Badgers offensively was redshirt freshman Joel Stave at quarterback, who looked impressive at times in his first road start. Stave completed 12 of his 23 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown, while Huskers’ junior quarterback Taylor Martinez showed off his dual-threat capabilities, running for 107 yards and a touchdown on the ground while throwing for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
“Give a lot of credit to Nebraska. … They played very, very well in the second half,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. “Obviously it was a tale of two halves; you could feel that momentum switch in the second half and something that our guys were never able to get back under grasp.”
Wisconsin opened up the game on fire, jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead thanks to a solid five-play, 71-yard drive punctuated by a two-yard touchdown run by Montee Ball. Stave found junior standout receiver Jared Abbrederis for a 54-yard strike on the drive, as Abbrederis finished the day with seven catches for 142 yards and a touchdown.
The Badgers’ defense then provided the offense a gift, as linebacker Chris Borland recovered a Rex Burkhead fumble and gave the UW offense possession at the Nebraska 17-yard line. Just a few plays later, Ball again found himself in the end zone, as the star tailback plowed his way in for a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
It looked like there was the potential for a Badger blowout in the beginning of the second quarter, as Stave found Abbrederis on a 29-yard touchdown pass to make the score 20-3 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the first half.
“I thought we had a lot of explosive plays,” Abbrederis said. “That first half was a good glimpse of what we [are capable of], but we have to make sure we can do that for a full game.”
While Wisconsin looked impressive for nearly two quarters, momentum shifted markedly toward Nebraska after a 93-yard Martinez-led drive near the end of the second half. The Huskers’ speedy signal-caller gashed the Badgers for a key 20-yard run on a delayed draw up the middle, finishing the drive with a touchdown pass to Burkhead from three yards out.
With the score 20-10 heading into the half, the Badgers had outgained the Huskers 205-143 on offense and were also winning the battle in time of possession. Chances looked remarkably bright Wisconsin could hold on for the upset victory on the road, but Nebraska’s running game in the second half proved to be too much for the Wisconsin front line to handle.
“They started doing some different things offensively,” defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “We know that they’re a spread team. … They definitely got some rushing yards on us in the second half that they didn’t have in the first half, and I think that was the big difference.”
After capitalizing on a Martinez fumble to make the score 27-10, Nebraska started to pound the ball on the ground with not only Burkhead and Martinez, but also speedy running back Ameer Abdullah. Together, the three accounted for 275 of Nebraska’s 278 yards on the ground. Of the 278 rushing yards on the night, the Huskers only gained 68 in the first half.
The crowd at Memorial Stadium gradually became more engaged as Nebraska crawled its way back with a 38-yard touchdown on a designed draw for Martinez, who later threw a pass to wideout Kyler Reed to narrow the score to 27-24.
In the end, the point differential came down to the kickers. While Wisconsin’s Jack Russell missed a 41-yard field goal wide right and an extra point after UW’s third touchdown, Nebraska’s Brett Maher was clutch, converting the tying 38-yard field goal and the go-ahead 41-yarder in the fourth quarter.
The Badgers made thing interesting on the game’s final drive, as O’Brien replaced a banged-up Stave and led Wisconsin’s offense to midfield. However, officials reviewed a key pass completion to redshirt-freshman wideout Jordan Fredrick on third-and-10 and ruled it a half-inch short of the first down. On the critical fourth-and-inches, a miscommunication between O’Brien and Ball allowed the Huskers to complete the second-biggest comeback in program history.
“We were up, we were doing well and we just have to keep it going,” Abbrederis said. “They had more energy than us in the second half. We have to have that mentality; we can’t just play two quarters and have two bad quarters.”
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