The Hail Varsity Staff offers final takes from Nebraska’s 23-17 loss at Wisconin:
Fresh off a touchdown that pulled the Huskers within three at 17-14, Nebraska had a chance to take control of the game. Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook overthrew his receiver and Nebraska safety Nathan Gerry was there to pick it off, giving the Huskers the ball in Badgers territory.
What followed was a run for no gain, two incomplete passes and a 36-yard punt.
“That was really a disappointing series; there’s no doubt about it,” Nebraska Coach Mike Riley said. “It felt like such a big opportunity for our team and to get nothing there was pretty scary as to the outcome of the game; that’s what it felt like. Will we evaluate what we had and what we called, yeah, those are the hard ones in a game like this that probably you go over and over that way.”
At least the Huskers had Wisconsin backed up, right? Well, yes but only until second down when running back Dare Ogunbowale ripped off a 39-yard run out past midfield. So the Huskers didn’t get any points and they immediately gave up their field position advantage.
Then Gerry did it again, this time picking off Wisconsin’s other quarterback, Bart Houston.
This time the Huskers did manage to put together a drive, reaching as far as the Wisconsin 21-yard line. But then three straight runs for a total of 3 yards ended it. Drew Brown knocked through a 35-yard field goal to tie the game at 17-17, but the Huskers missed a chance to go ahead and put the pressure on Wisconsin to come back.
“We had some turnovers late in the game to put us in that situation [to make a comeback], but there were a few times where we didn’t capitalize,” senior quarterback Armstrong Jr. said. “Definitely when Nate had two interceptions, back-to-back for us, and we weren’t able to put any points on the board.”
The Huskers still managed to give themselves a shot right up until the final play of the game, but had the offense capitalized on the opportunities the defense gave them, it likely never even gets to overtime. Moments like that are where games are won and loss in big-time college football.
“We’ve just got to make sure that when we get a situation like that, definitely with a team like Wisconsin, we just have to make sure that we put points on the board and we just have to keep fighting.”
Athletes are tough. I’ve always felt that way. However, there’s something particularly tough about Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp and the whole Husker football team.
Think about the injuries Nebraska has faced. Armstrong, for example, apparently walked off the field against Wisconsin complaining of back pain. Rumor has it something “warm and gooey” was put on his back. In the time that was administered, cameras found backup quarterbacks Ryker Fyfe and Patrick O’Brien.
Fyfe and O’Brien never saw the field, much to the dismay of every person who thought throwing the football meant they were warming up. Armstrong returned the very next series and any back pain he was having was not apparent.
There was also Westerkamp who returned after being sidelined with a back injury of his own. He had one play where he took himself out, immediately walking to the trainer’s table. Panic set in, until it was evident Westerkamp had tweaked his ankle and he was getting it taped up. He went back in.
There was also Tanner Farmer, Devine Ozigbo and Terrell Newby who all suffered various injuries.
“We’ll see about the injuries,” head coach Mike Riley said. “Of course you know we lost Tanner Farmer pretty early on, and [Westerkamp] sprained his ankle a little bit. Devine did and Terrell Newby did too – sprained his ankle – so we’ll see about those guys. I think they all kept playing.”
With the exception of Farmer, Westerkamp, Ozigbo and Newby all kept playing. It’s not surprising, either. That’s how this 2016 team operates. If they can get back on the field, they will.
Nebraska is tough. After eight games, it’s more apparent than ever.
Play calling in the red zone is no picnic. The field is compressed, quarters are tighter, yards are more precious, mistakes are back-breakers.
Armchair quarterbacking, by comparison, is much easier and I typically try to avoid that, but in a game where Nebraska did a lot of things well and proved quite a bit, the one thing that sticks out to me, the “boy, I bet they’d like to have that one back” moment is the Huskers’ play on second down in overtime.
As Jacob noted above, Nebraska had a first down at the Badgers’ 21 on the drive that ended in the game-tying field goal. The Huskers played it pretty safe, running three times, one of which was a reverse to Jordan Westerkamp, and that made sense. Get the field goal, extend the game.
The scenario didn’t exist in overtime. The Huskers knew they needed a touchdown and that if they got it they would in all likelihood win. You could see just in the way Tommy Armstrong Jr. tightened his chin strap that the offense was ready to go do it. Nebraska still had to get a touchdown, but it felt like all the pressure was now on the Badgers.
On first down, Nebraska runs Terrell Newby straight ahead into the line for 3 yards. Not a bad gain. It’s second-and-7 and Nebraska knows it has three more downs to get the 7. If anything, that thought may have been too comforting because, in my estimation, the Huskers got really conservative on the one play when they still had the upper hand.
The second-down play was a lead draw. Two years ago at Big Ten media days, Mike Riley told the story of how when he was the head coach of the San Antonio Riders and Paul Chryst was an assistant in 1991, the two used to go over to watch the Dallas Cowboys practice. Riley found one of his staple plays that way, Norv Turner’s lead draw, as made famous by Emmitt Smith. If there’s a play both of the coaches in this game know better than this one, I don’t know what it could be.
It looked that way when Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly diagnosed it immediately, shot the gap and got just enough of Newby to drop him for a 1-yard loss. That put a lot of pressure on Nebraska to get something close to the sticks on third down, didn’t happen, which then set up the do-or-die fourth down.
“I thought we had a good draw, hitting that draw,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “They had a run-through on the backside that got us.”
There’s an argument to be made for going with the play you believe in the most in situations like that, but to me it felt a little cautious, a little like “let’s see what we can get.” It didn’t feel like Nebraska was truly attacking at that moment, and when you open that door for the other team to become the aggressor a good team like Wisconsin will be more than happy to kick that door down.
That one play wasn’t why Nebraska lost, but watching it a second and third time it sure feels like the moment overtime momentum shifted to the home side, never to return.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.