Déjà vu, anyone?
No, you weren’t seeing a replay of last year’s Wisconsin team on the road this past Saturday, and yes, Nebraska scored 20 unanswered points to overcome a 17-point deficit in the third quarter to beat Wisconsin 30-27, the second biggest comeback in Huskers’ history.
Once again, in a recurring theme of Badger teams on the road, the team jumped ahead by a big lead, had its opponents by the proverbial throat and somehow found a way to let yet another key victory slip through its grasp.
While last year’s Michigan State and Ohio State losses were soul-crushing blows because of the way Wisconsin lost, there is an air around recent Badger teams that no lead on the road, no matter how large, is ever safe. Sure, losing away from home is a common theme in football, but losing the way the Badgers have been is getting old.
So what gives? The Badgers are 0-2 on the road this year, and although both losses have been against teams currently ranked in the top 25, the team looks like a shadow of its former self.
During the Bret Bielema era at Wisconsin, the team is just 21-18 overall on the road. Against opponents in the top 25 away from Camp Randall? The Badgers are just 2-7, and that includes bowl games and games played at neutral sites.
But placing the blame for the Badgers most recent loss is a tough assignment.
The players themselves failed to execute multiple times through the duration of the Nebraska game. Montee Ball dropped a pass that hit him in the hands and looked like a sure-fire touchdown, as Ball had slipped behind the last line of Husker defense on a wheel route. Sure, quarterback Joel Stave underthrew the ball, but it was a play Ball has made multiple times throughout his illustrious career at Wisconsin and one he should’ve made Saturday.
And how about the offensive line? The group once again showed flashes of vast improvement but ended up losing the battle in the trenches. In the first quarter there was one instance in particular where Montee Ball ran through a hole so big you could’ve driven a Mack truck through it. Ball bounced off one tackler and finally found himself in space.
The Badgers gained 110 yards on the ground but only gained 56 total yards rushing. The Badgers’ O-line struggled with pad level once again and failed at times to adequately pick up blitzes, especially in the second half.
The kicking game didn’t exactly save the Badgers either. While Nebraska’s Brett Maher looked like one of the nation’s best, going 3-4 and only missing a 51-yard field goal, Wisconsin’s freshman kicker Jack Russell missed his only field goal from 41 yards out and also missed a critical extra point. In a game where the Badgers only lost by three, Russell’s performance was a difference in the outcome.
But it’s unfair to point the finger at just one player. Football is truly a team sport, and it takes a collective effort by both players and coaches alike to win in an environment like Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium.
So how about that coaching? Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s play calls were impressive throughout the first few drives, as aggressive passes and multiple play-actions left Nebraska wondering what hit it. A 54-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis to set up the first score and a 29-yard pass to Abbrederis for a touchdown were breaths of fresh air for Badger fans who had seen very conservative play calling throughout the first four weeks of the season.
But then, for whatever reason, the Badgers failed to move the ball. Who knows, if the Badgers’ defense didn’t create two turnovers, would the offense have even scored 20 points? The fact is, the Badgers’ offensive stall in the second half resulted from a combination of a few factors.
For one, the Badgers never seriously controlled the line of scrimmage. The longest run of the day was a 14-yard scamper from Ball. As far as telling numbers go, the Badgers averaged just 1.4 yards per carry against the Huskers. When the run game was completely shut down in the second half — the team had just four rushes of more than three yards — there was no way to sell the play-action pass, the lethal tool that had set up its first-half scores.
Another reason was that Nebraska simply made adjustments after the second half that Wisconsin could, for some reason, not adjust to themselves. There were multiple instances where it seemed the Huskers’ defense knew exactly what was coming, as Ball was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage on multiple instances, including a key third-and-1.
Canada got conservative in his play calling; of that there is no doubt. It looked more like the Badgers were playing not to lose in the second half. When it mattered most, the Badgers had four consecutive drives of five plays or fewer during the Nebraska comeback. The Badgers were outcoached in Nebraska, plain and simple.
And where was Melvin Gordon? A week after the redshirt freshman’s breakout 100-plus yard effort against UTEP, the electric tailback only received two touches. Montee Ball is an outstanding running back, but having a change-of-pace back is something the Badgers have always utilized and thrived on.
But enough of the criticism and pessimism.
If there’s anything good that can be taken after this loss, it’s that the goal of the Big Ten Championship Game remains obtainable. It’s a long conference season, and the Badgers have a chance to get some confidence back against a weak Illinois team. With another road game looming in the distance in West Lafayette against Purdue in just two weeks, a game that will likely determine who gets to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, the Badgers need to find a way to play the way they did in those first two quarters of the Nebraska game for the entire 60 minutes.
Because if they don’t, the Badgers will be watching the Big Ten Championship Game not from the field but from their own couches back in Madison.
Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in history and English. Besides covering the football team, Nick is also a member of 91.7 WSUM’s “The Student Section” that airs Mondays from 4-6 p.m. and “The Badger Herald Sports Hour,” which airs Sundays from 4-5 p.m. Have a comment about the column? Email him at [email protected]