Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska’s Offense Goes Cold, Allowing Wisconsin to Seize 15-14 Comeback Win

November 19, 2022

To some extent, Nebraska lost Saturday’s game against Wisconsin on Dec. 3, 2017. From the cozy club level on Memorial Stadium’s third floor, flanked by balloons and joy, Scott Frost told the excited masses the Big Ten would have to modify its system to beat Nebraska. Nearly five years later, two months after Frost was removed as head coach, the Big Ten won. Again.

Wisconsin’s old-school, Big Ten offense melted minutes without points until absolutely necessary. Quarterback Graham Mertz followed another surge over the goal line from a yard out with 35 seconds left. The Badgers dropped the bucket at midfield and pulled it up, full of water, seven plays later. That left returning starting quarterback Casey Thompson and the Nebraska offense with 79 yards and no more pennies to lob at the well. Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to become bowl eligible and beat Nebraska (3-8, 2-6) like so many times before, 15-14.

Since Frost’s ominous statement, Nebraska is 12-31 in the Big Ten. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph, who took over when Frost was removed, told the Huskers this was going to be a grown-man game. Interim defensive coordinator Bill Busch, who stepped in when Jospeh fired Frost’s chosen defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, called it a trench game. Stereotypical Big Ten frigid physicality came to Lincoln and it outmatched the Huskers. A familiar outcome for Nebraska’s seniors in their last home game.

Nebraska could have rose to the challenge. The Huskers started a drive with 4:58 remaining and a 5-point lead. All they needed was a push to get 10 yards in 3 plays. The first one went backwards 3 yards. The second gained those back and more. When the high-octane connection of Thompson and Palmer didn’t work, the Huskers gave the ball — and the game — back to Wisconsin.

“When you run the ball and you lose 2, you’re just not blocking clean so we try to get it in the air,” Joseph said after. “We gotta teach them to close them out.”

Joseph said Nebraska’s running attack isn’t where it needs to be. It just hasn’t clicked. Nebraska’s capable back Anthony Grant finished with 29 on 16 carries, 11 of which came on one play. Thompson, the reluctant runner still without complete feeling in his throwing hand, led the Huskers with 33 rushing yards. He didn’t plan on running as much — he rarely does. But he ran to the gaps behind three-man rushes. Although, some of Grant’s runs nearly broke for big gains. He just couldn’t get beyond initial contact.

“We had opportunities for big plays, we had gaps that he could have creased a few of,” Thompson said, “but you can tell the Wisconsin players are definitely strong and they have a lot of size to them. So it was hard to run through those arm tackles.”

Thompson participated in the Senior Day festivities. He said it was because he didn’t do that at Texas last year and missed out. He’s finishing his Master’s Degree next month and wanted the experience. The announced 86,000 welcomed him back to Memorial Stadium and the Wisconsin defense welcomed him back to the field. The Badgers either knocked him down or sacked him on his first five dropbacks, a recurring issue against physical Big Ten defenses. Thompson, and the offense by extension, started slow and efficient until the the defense made a play.

Mertz sent a pass into the air that the whipping winter-esque wind knocked into the arms of cornerback Malcolm Hartzog. The freshman returned the interception to the Wisconsin 37. Thompson found tight end Travis Vokolek on third down down to the Wisconsin 4. Four new plays to push forward for 4 yards. They were incapable of that. Wisconsin’s Jordan Turner tackled Grant for a loss of 7 on first down. This forced a pass and Thompson threaded an 11-yard touchdown over the middle to Trey Palmer. Even video review couldn’t take away Nebraska’s first touchdown in 139 minutes and 16 seconds of game time. Palmer’s first touchdown since his breakout game against Purdue gave the Huskers their first lead in six quarters.

That one touchdown held across halftime until Nebraska answered a 25-yard field goal from Nate Van Zelst with another Thompson-to-Palmer touchdown. Wisconsin left Palmer wide open in the middle of the end zone for a 19-yard catch. That nine-play drive went 79 yards, 30 of which came from personal foul penalties on Wisconsin. Regardless, that 4-minute drive put Nebraska up 14-3 going into the fourth quarter. All they had to do was put it away.

“Throughout the third and fourth quarter, long game like that, it’s important for us to have a run game and it all starts and ends up front with the offensive line,” Thompson said. “We have to be able to sustain drives. Whether it’s a run or pass play we have to be able to get first downs and put more points on the board.”

Wisconsin rebutted Nebraska’s final touchdown with a 10-yard pass from Mertz to Skyler Bell. The ensuing two-point conversion throw went out of the back of the end zone. That left Nebraska’s offense with the ball and the lead with 10 minutes remaining. They got one first down until Grant’s run lost a yard. Then Wisconsin’s Darryl Peterson sacked Thompson for a 7-yard loss. Nebraska ran on 3rd-and-long before Buschini punted.

“In a perfect world we get that first down and at the end of the day the game’s over,” Vokolek said. “We really thought that. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. That’s our fault. Our coaches call the plays for us, they set us up to execute, as an offense as a whole we didn’t execute very well.”

Nebraska’s offense managed 171 total yards on 49 plays across 23 minutes, 3 seconds of possession Saturday. Thompson, between throwing and running, accounted for 139 of the team’s 171 yards despite getting sacked three times. Wisconsin, meanwhile, ran 70 plays for 318 yards with nearly 37 minutes of possession. Chez Mellusi ran for 98, standout Braelon Allen ran for 92 and Mertz’s 1-yard plunge came on the shoulders of an offensive push Nebraska’s offense couldn’t imitate. As a result, the Badgers seized the win and Nebraska was left out in the cold.

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