LINCOLN, Neb. — When it comes to third-and-short, or fourth-and-short, Wisconsin has not had much luck converting the once-easy situational downs. And it’s a problem that made the trip with them to Memorial Stadium this weekend.
With just more than a minute left in the game, Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) faced fourth-and-1, trailing Nebraska (4-1, 1-0) 30-27. With junior quarterback Danny O’Brien running the two-minute drill, senior running back Montee Ball took the handoff and fumbled. Nebraska recovered — and secured the win.
For Nebraska, it was sweet justice. For Wisconsin, it was pure disappointment after capturing a 17-point lead at the beginning of the third quarter.
While Ball is credited with the fumble, he wasn’t even supposed to get the handoff in the first place. According to Ball, the call was supposed to be a naked bootleg.
“I wasn’t expecting the ball at all,” Ball said.
“It’s very frustrating because it looked like I fumbled the football, but I’m not just going to sit here and point the finger at all. We just can’t put ourselves in that situation.”
According to O’Brien, with the look he was getting from the defense, he thought he would have been sacked on the bootleg run and therefore carried out an automatic handoff to Ball. The ultimate miscommunication ended the Badgers’ final drive and their chances of walking out of Lincoln with a season-boosting win.
The fourth down only exemplified UW’s prior struggles on third and fourth down against the Cornhuskers. The Badgers converted only four of 15 third downs and one of their two fourth downs. Prior to Nebraska, Wisconsin converted only 30 percent (16 of 53) of its third downs and three of five fourth downs through the nonconference season.
You’re hot, then you’re cold
Through Wisconsin’s first half, it looked like there was something different about the way Ball was running. Flashbacks to the Nebraska game last year weren’t far off — at first.
“That’s what I was really focusing on coming into this game, just making one cut and go,” Ball said. “And really getting back to what I was doing last year.”
At the half, Ball led all rushers with 59 yards on 17 carries for two touchdowns. Only five minutes into the third quarter, he would gain his third touchdown of the game, equaling his season total through the first four games.
But through the second half, Ball only gained 31 more yards — for a total of 90 — on 15 additional carries. At the half, he averaged 3.5 yards per carry. At the end of the game, that average fell to a meager 2.8 yards per carry.
But the senior running back wasn’t the only one who cooled off.
While the Badgers as a whole didn’t perform as well in the second half as they had in the first, that difference was most noticeable on the defense.
In the first half, the defense held Nebraska to 68 rushing yards and 75 passing yards — just 143 total yards. Meanwhile, the Badgers had compiled 205 yards of offense on 161 passing yards and 44 rushing yards. At the time, the Badgers also held a 20-10 lead.
After Ball scored his third touchdown, Nebraska scored 17 unanswered points and added 297 offensive yards — ending with a total of 440 yards off 259 rushing yards and 181 more through the air.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one exact thing,” junior defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “One thing that was kind of tough is they had some long drives going and gave some momentum to them. If we could have forced some more three-and-outs, that could have been a big thing for us defensively.”
Kicking controversy continues
Sometimes, missed field goals or extra points aren’t a huge deal. Other times, they haunt teams for the rest of the game.
Freshman kicker Jack Russell, despite winning the kicking job from sophomore Kyle French earlier in the season, missed a PAT and later sent a 41-yard field goal wide left.
Those four missed points hung over the loser in a 30-27 decision like a big “What if?”
“Obviously in retrospect it’s very, very big,” Bielema said of the four missed points. “… We know that every play matters. The kicking game is a little bit up and down. Both of them at times show really good things. It’s made it difficult to go with one guy. You would like one of the guys to stand up and take control, but it hasn’t been able to happen for us yet.”
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