Admit it: When the coin flip came up Foltz you thought Nebraska had it. It was just the way things were going to work. Of course the Huskers called Foltz on the memorial coin featuring Nebraska’s punter and Michigan State’s Mike Sadler, both tragically lost this summer in an automobile accident, and of course that’s how it landed on the coin flip to start overtime. It’s how it had to be.
Nebraska had an edge, first cosmically and then headed into overtime. The former seemed obvious when Wisconsin’s Andrew Endicott, the backup to Foltz’s friend and the Badgers’ injured starter Rafael Gaglianone, missed a potential game-winning field goal from 45 yards away with 1:43 left. There was never any doubt that Drew Brown would hit his game-tying field goal exactly 2 minutes earlier. Even when the Badgers scored a touchdown to open the extra period, Endicott missed the extra point and everyone knew what it meant: The perfect ending was unfolding.
But football is mostly defined by imperfection. We remember the truly great moments not just for the joy, but also for the rarity. It’s not a game so much of successes, but near misses. The fewer of those wins.
On Saturday, that was Wisconsin. Again. But barely.
“For a while it looked like a pretty typical game of ours. We came back and scored some points in the fourth quarter,” Coach Mike Riley said. “When they missed the extra point, I thought, ‘OK,’ but it was not to be.”
The bigger story from Saturday, however, is not what Nebraska lost, but what it gained. This trip to Madison was supposed to be yet another referendum on the state of Husker football. Twice before Nebraska had gone in highly ranked and left humbled. This time, few even thought the Huskers should have been highly ranked. Wisconsin was the team that had proven itself with two wins over top-10 teams and two close losses to two more.
Those questions weren’t invalid on Saturday morning, but they should have been by the time Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s final pass to Stanley Morgan Jr. was knocked to the turf. It was only then that you could separate the two teams.
Total yards in this game – Wisconsin 337, Nebraska 305, and the Badgers outgained the Huskers by 22 in overtime. Turnovers? Even. First downs? Even. Penalties? Two for 10 yards for Nebraska, one for five yards against Wisconsin and some will say one missed call, a potential pass interference on Jordan Westerkamp in overtime, though it seems like an insult to this game to even bring it up.
Perception? That should be about even, too.
Wisconsin will jump Nebraska in the polls tomorrow, as it should. Those three top-10 wins are impressive. Or at least two of them are. Michigan State is nowhere near the eighth-best team in the country, its ranking when it faced the Badgers. LSU probably isn’t climbing back into the top five, where it started the season before losing to Wisconsin in the opener, but the Tigers are a good team.
So is Nebraska.
If nothing else, Nebraska proved it belonged. Considering where this program has been over the last 15 years, Husker fans may have been almost as hungry for that as they were a win in Wisconsin.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s worth a lot. In the short term, however, it only gives Nebraska the opportunity to continue to try and prove it.
“Everything about our team I know is confirmed, which is they’ll continue to fight,” Riley said. “We certainly got to improve some things to finish out where we want to. There’s no doubt about it.”
The next four weeks will, of course, be the ultimate judge of what Saturday’s close loss in Madison means. For now it looks as good as a loss can look, which is still worse than a win.
But for a modern-day Nebraska program still trying to get noticed for something other than not being the Nebraska of old, this game offered the best evidence yet that maybe those days aren’t that far way.
All it was missing was the perfect ending.
Maybe that’s still on the way. Maybe Saturday was a new start.