Nebraska interim head coach Mickey Joseph approached the podium for his post-game comments clearly weakened. He shed the layers he roamed the sidelines with and his reliable energy hung to the coatrack as well. His gusto that could rally a team and the surrounding 86,000 vanished. It left behind a former Husker that watched his program lose a battle of wills. And it hurt.
“This is a tough one,” he struggled to say. “To be in control of the game like that. I gotta do a better job of getting them to close people out. That’s going to happen with maturity and doing a better job.”
He thanked the seniors after their last game in Memorial Stadium. Joseph called the team one with good character. Earlier, before the fourth-quarter collapse that allowed Wisconsin to win 15-14, he told them they’re a better team than when he first met them upon his arrival to the Nebraska coaching staff 11 months ago. And they’ll continue to get better, every day, and work for a different result.
Nebraska’s offense hasn’t gained more than 267 yards since the loss to Purdue. In the first game of the three-game stretch, quarterback Casey Thompson suffered nerve damage in his throwing hand during a hit. He returned to the starting lineup on Saturday, still without complete feeling in his hand. Thompson finished 12 of 20 for 106 yards and two touchdowns. It was his first interception-free game since the loss to Oklahoma two months ago. He started out rough, turning the wrong way to hand off on the offense’s first play, but recovered.
“I thought as the game went along he settled down a little bit,” Joseph, a former quarterback, said. “He was a little antsy at times but I thought he made some good throws. As a quarterback you’re going to miss some, you know, but he saw it better than I thought he was going to see it today.”
Thompson thought he played “pretty good” after feeling good at practice. He wanted to compete at a high level and did just that. He withstood pressure, didn’t throw into traffic, used his legs to gain yards and draw penalties while spreading the defense. Ultimately, that wasn’t good enough.
“We have to be better on third down on offense and we have to be able to put more points on the board, that starts with me,” Thompson said. “And I know I’m the quarterback and I’ll take the blame if we win or lose so, I think I played a pretty good game and did a good job taking care of the ball but at the end of the day we didn’t win the game and we have to put more points on the board.
“I’m going to re-evaluate myself and the rest of the offense and I take all ownership and accountability for that as well.”
Nebraska was 5-of-11 on third down. The Huskers’ 171 total yards only surpassed the 146 yards they gained against No. 3 Michigan last week. Nebraska lost the time of possession battle by a nearly 37-23 minute margin on Saturday, including just 11 minutes of possession in the second half. Thompson’s second touchdown pass of the day to Trey Palmer for 19 yards ended a 79-yard drive late in the third quarter. Thirty of those 79 yards were directly tied to Wisconsin penalties. Nebraska’s offense generated 76 yards in the second half, just 22 coming on the ground.
Both Garrett Nelson and Colton Feist knew they’d have to compensate. When the two native Nebraskans teamed to tackle standout running back Braelon Allen for a 4-yard loss and force an eventual 3-and-out with 5 minutes left, they knew they’d have to make one more stop.
“We knew we’d probably have to go out there one more time,” lineman Ty Robinson said. “We’re here to play defense and that’s my job, to get the ball back, unfortunately we weren’t able to stop them but that’s what film review and practice is for.”
Wisconsin finished with 318 yards on 70 plays. A total 119 yards and 19 plays came in the Badgers’ 12-point fourth quarter. The strong, physical, imposing team that embodies the Big Ten’s core, in the conference’s associated frigid elements, broke through the threshold. Nebraska still hasn’t beaten Wisconsin in over a decade and the Huskers are 3-14 in the conference in the past two seasons.
Thirty-one seniors participated in Senior Day festivities on Saturday. Nineteen still have eligibility. That listed includes Thompson, Feist, edge Ochaun Mathis, lineman Ian Boerkircher, receiver Brody Belt and safety Phalen Sanford. Thompson said after the game that he’ll wait to make his decision on whether he’ll return or not after the season. There’s still a lot up in the air and a lot of raw emotions following that loss. Nelson, the team captain with another year of eligibility, said earlier in the week he wasn’t going to participate in Senior Day. He laughed and said he’ll decide what his next year looks like when asked if that meant he was returning.
They’ll announce their plans in the offseason. There’s one more game until then. But what could summon strength within Nebraska anymore? Another three-win season is a 50-50 possibility at this point as Nebraska’s losing streak extended to five games with the loss to Wisconsin. Safety Marques Buford is likely out for the season finale and possibly spring ball with a gruesome leg injury. The losses are compiling and it’s cold in the midwest. What can the captains tell the rest of the team to stir something special?
“They’re Iowa,” Nelson smiled.