There were no secrets about Wisconsin’s defense going into Saturday night. College football fans everywhere know the kind of nasty the Badgers bring on that side of the ball.
Yet, at the end of the first quarter on Saturday, Nebraska’s offense had more total yards against Wisconsin’s defense, 157, than Eastern Michigan (92), Illinois (93) and Iowa (156) had for their entire games against the Badgers. At halftime, Scott Frost’s offense had 220, which was more than the full-game production that Purdue (206), Rutgers (207) and Northwestern (190) had.
And by the end of the game, right after Adrian Martinez’s pass on fourth-and-20 to Zavier Betts fell incomplete despite early contact with a defender to seal the Huskers’ 35-28 loss, Nebraska had 452 total yards, the most against defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit this season, and 87 more yards than what Michigan had on Oct. 2.
But none of that matters in the grand scheme of Nebraska’s football program. There were still those dreaded are-you-kidding-me moments that proved too costly to overcome.
There were special teams errors—two big ones. The Badgers returned the opening kickoff of the game 91 yards for a touchdown. Then Alante Brown muffed a kickoff—one that he signaled fair catch for—late in the third quarter which gave his team the ball at its own 6-yard line instead of the 25. Six plays later, Adrian Martinez threw his second interception of the game, one that seemed to float in the air for an eternity.
There were penalties, too. Offensive tackle Turner Corcoran had two holding calls. Bryce Benhart had one, and it came at the worst moment—on Nebraska’s last drive of the game. It turned a first-and-10 on Wisconsin’s 11 into a first-and-20 on Wisconsin’s 22. Four incompletions later, the Huskers’ upset bid was over.
“We shot ourselves in the foot on a couple offensive drives with penalties,” an emotional Frost said after the game. “It’s happened too much, we need to get it fixed. We’re gonna get it fixed. We keep putting ourselves in position against really good teams. We gotta get it done.”
Then there’s Martinez. Near the end of the second quarter, he hurt his shoulder. Backup Logan Smothers came into the game to run the last couple plays before halftime. That was Smothers’ fifth game he’s played in, which means he’s burned his redshirt.
Despite the shoulder, Martinez was out there for the third quarter and finished the rest of the game. But like he’s done in almost every loss this season, Martinez has made costly mistakes. Saturday night, it was two interceptions, both to safety Collin Wilder.
The Badgers turned the first interception into a touchdown.
“The first one, I think our receiver (Oliver Martin) just needed to go get the ball. That’s what it looked like to me, I gotta see the tape,” Frost said of the first pick. “But he was open enough and I thought the ball was in a good spot. We have to come get the ball. The second one, I was kind of chewing him (Martinez) for it. I think maybe his injury had a little to do with how that one came out of his hand.”
Frost said Martinez told him his shoulder had an impact on the second interception. But his head coach decided to keep playing his starter considering the inexperience behind him.
“That’s what he told me. He’s tough. The ball floated in the air too long and the safety came and got it,” Frost said of the second pick. “I thought he played a whale of a game. His checkdown was there in that situation, I’d rather have the ball go there.”
That’s been the story of the season, something the fanbase has come to expect. In his fourth year, Frost has a team that can play with the best teams in the country, until the lights get bright and the stakes get high. Yards are good, but wins are better.
Martinez became Nebraska’s all-time leader in total yards Saturday night. Tight end Austin Allen has 36 receptions this season, the most of any Husker tight end in history, two more than Tyler Hoppes’ previous record of 34 in 2017. Allen is 13 receiving yards away from the Nebraska tight end record of 560.
Something that should be celebrated feels like it has a dark cloud floating above it. That cloud is a 3-8 record with a 1-7 mark in conference play.
“If I had my choice, I’d go zero catches all season if I knew we’d win every game,” Allen said. “I know a lot of the guys on this team are the same way.”
Nebraska’s offense had 10 big passing plays on Saturday night against one of the nation’s best defenses—completions of 42, 38, 34, 27, 22, 19, 17, 16, 16 and 15 yards. Two big rushing plays of 19 and 11 yards. But the mistakes on special teams and with turnover and penalties carry more weight.
“We did some fun things this week that I think the kids had fun practicing and getting ready for,” Frost said of why his offense hit the Badgers hard. “We’re just getting better as a football team and we have been for a long time. And we’re a pretty darn good team despite what our record says, I think everyone can see that.”
Everyone can see that.
But everyone can also see this team crumbles when the chips are down.