Nebraska (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) dropped its fourth game in a row Saturday afternoon to 14th-ranked Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten). Inconsistencies, tackling and special teams all contributed to a frustrating 37-21 loss.
Here are three thoughts from the game.
The most frustrating part of Saturday’s loss is what has been the most frustrating part of this entire season. A 17-0 lead at Colorado. A 14-3 lead against Indiana. A 10-0 lead at Purdue. A 14-10 lead over Wisconsin.
Nebraska looks the part for brief and inexplicably fleeting stretches and then just crashes to the ground.
Is it a stretch to say Nebraska was controlling things early on? The Huskers moved the ball on their opening offensive possession, then forced a turnover on Wisconsin’s first offensive possession.
It went 63 yards in five plays on drive No. 2 and took a 7-0 lead. It responded to a 10-0 Badger run with an immediate five-play, 73-yard scoring drive to retake the lead.
Nebraska ran for more yards in the first half (155) than any other non-Ohio State team has run for against the Badger defense in an entire game. And Nebraska did so at an 8.2 yards-per-carry clip.
The Husker offense, for the game, moved the ball well. Junior running back Dedrick Mills topped the century mark on the ground before halftime, and burned the Badgers time and time again, finishing with 188 yards on 17 carries. But mistakes at the worst of times stunt progress.
Nebraska goes up 7-0 and allows the Badgers to take the ensuing kickoff back 89 yards to the house. Nebraska goes up 14-10 and then tackling becomes a problem; the Badgers hit for 55 yards on one pass because two guys miss tackles down the field, taking the lead back. Nebraska throws a tip-pick on the next drive.
Twelve yards gained on the first play of the first drive of the second half, on the heels of a Wisconsin three-and-out, is followed by 21 yards gained on the second play. It’s then followed by a 20-yard sack for some unknown reason. Nebraska sputters from there and misses a 41-yard field goal.
I’d imagine a good chunk of the fanbase expected this end result throughout the week. Cautious optimism, to borrow a phrase I’ve oft heard from women’s basketball coach Amy Williams this season. But I would imagine those same people didn’t expect Nebraska to move the ball on the ground the way it did. So that start was unexpected.
Nebraska offers hope and then takes it away. It’s frustrating to watch. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that.
Dedrick, The Hammer
Dedrick Mills had 23 carries total across three games dating back to Oct. 12.
He was turned loose Saturday against the Badgers out of necessity and he responded. Mills’ day marked a career-high for him as a running back.
It begs the question: why did it take Wan’Dale Robinson, a receiver, being physically unable to play to turn to Mills in the backfield? Is this kind of ground game not better used in complement to Robinson’s electricity in space? The freshman wideout’s usage has been something of a mystery in recent weeks, and if Mills had this in the bag—against one of college football’s best run defenses no less— why was he not being utilized.
It’s, of course, always easier to question these things in hindsight, but Mills has gotten more than 12 carries in a game twice now this season: the opener, and Saturday. That will go down as one of the more curious storylines of the season.
Proof of Concept
Wisconsin offers a stylistic litmus test of sorts.
The Badgers beat you with defense and running and I-formation and offensive line development and nasty, unheralded recruits. It’s the Nebraska way of year’s past. It’s largely the Big Ten way. When the viewing public at large thinks of the conference, it still generally thinks of Wisconsin and Michigan running before it thinks of Urban Meyer’s spread Buckeye teams. (I think. Which means that’s probably not true.)
Nebraska is zagging. Scott Frost wants to play in space with speed. He wants to stretch teams. He wants to put pressure on individual defenders to make tackles in a sea of green grass against guys who are most likely their athletic superior.
The first six games of 2018 made it a little easier to question that approach. This season certainly wasn’t a glowing endorsement of his way. A few weeks ago, against Purdue, I wrote Frost needed to consider some adjustments.
While that remains somewhat true, the same Wisconsin team that has tortured Nebraska since it joined the conference, and the Wisconsin team that boasts, statistically, one of the best defenses in football, offered Nebraska proof of concept.
Nebraska went for 493 against the Badgers while breaking off 8.2 yards per play. (It’ll go down as another loss when the Huskers win the efficiency battle. Teams who do so win 80% of the time, Nebraska has now lost that way eight times under Frost.) The offense produced 21 explosive plays against a defense that doesn’t give them up lightly. Twenty-one.
Problems in this one largely rested on the other side of the ball. The defense gave up another 200-yard day to UW running back Jonathan Taylor (204 and two scores on 25 carries, his lowest output in three games against NU), and it missed tackles left and right.
But, that offense. That offense again tore up the Badgers. Remember, Martinez threw for 384 yards and two scores last year in Madison.
If there was any question as to whether this style was going to work here in the Big Ten, where it seems at odds with all the league’s core football philosophies, Wisconsin offered Nebraska’s offense what AD Bill Moos offered his head coach before the game: peace of mind.
It’s going to take time, but all signs point to this working.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.