Nebraska’s offense came alive against Wisconsin as the Huskers hit a stout Badgers defense for 21 chunk plays and 493 yards, but as has been the case for much of the season, whatever success Nebraska managed to have was undone by backbreaking mistakes.
The Huskers turned all that yardage into just three touchdowns in a 37-21 loss to Wisconsin. They went 2-for-4 in the red zone and 0-for-3 on fourth downs. As good as the offense was for long stretches, it wasn’t efficient enough to overcome the problems on defense and special teams as mistake after mistake killed Nebraska’s chances.
We could highlight any of a number of plays here — in a 16-point loss, there is no one play that made the difference — but in this case, we’re choosing one to represent them all. This week’s Play of the Game is Adrian Martinez’s second-quarter interception.
Martinez put together a masterful drive to give the Huskers a 14-10 lead early in the period, but Wisconsin responded in kind, traveling 86 yards in five plays to retake the lead at 17-14 midway through the quarter.
With the way Wisconsin runs the ball, the Huskers couldn’t afford to fall behind by multiple scores. Nebraska needed an answer. After a touchback on the kickoff, Martinez dropped back to pass on first down.
— Wisconsin On BTN (@WisconsinOnBTN) November 16, 2019
Wisconsin only rushed three and the offensive line held up easily, giving the quarterback plenty of time to survey the field. Nebraska sent three receivers downfield while bringing Kanawai Noa across the formation on a drag.
After a moment, it looks like Martinez locks in on Noa and watches him run across the field before making the throw. What he didn’t see was linebacker Chris Orr hanging back at the line of scrimmage, watching his eyes. Looking off Noa or even making a simple pump fake very well might have moved Orr out of position, but Martinez didn’t do that. He simply tried to make the throw.
Orr jumped up and deflected the pass right into the hands of Jack Sanborn at the Nebraska 32-yard line and the linebacker returned it 11 yards to the 21. Three runs later, the Badgers were in the end zone. In less than two minutes, Nebraska went from up by four to down by 10.
“Kind of unfortunate in some ways, but I think he’ll learn from it,” Scott Frost said about the play. We had a deeper route down field, a route that works against corners on one side and man on the other and he has a check down shallow. They did a good job taking the deeper part away. Kanawai was open the whole play, I saw him coming across and Adrian got his eyes back down to him and tried to drop it to him and one of their defensive linemen were just spying him and reached up and tipped the ball. I think it’s unfortunate in a situation like that. Maybe if he moves his feet a little and opens up a lane to him or gets to him just a little quicker. It wasn’t a bad play by him, I think he’ll learn from it, it was just kind of an unfortunate deal.”
(I guess Frost didn’t see Orr either; he’s definitely not a defensive lineman.)
Nebraska went four-and-out on its next drive and the Badgers tacked on a field goal before halftime to take a 27-14 lead into the locker room. The Huskers held the Badgers to 10 points in the second half, but they only scored seven themselves.
Martinez was spectacular at times, particularly with his legs. He accounted for 220 yards through the air and 123 yards on the ground on 12 true carries plus two touchdowns. But he also got sacked four times for a loss of 34 yards (including a 20-yard sack he was responsible for after Nebraska had moved into the red zone that led to a missed 41-yard field goal by Barret Pickering) and he only completed 13 of his 23 passes (56.5%).
He wasn’t the only one making mistakes, though. It could have been any number of plays featured in this space. Immediately after taking a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter, the Huskers gave up an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that included a 54-yard kick and terrible coverage.
On the go-ahead touchdown before Martinez’s interception, Nebraska had a chance to tackle AJ Taylor after a decent gain but instead three different guys whiffed and he took it 55 yards to the end zone.
Even the sideline interference (isn’t Nebraska supposed to get a warning first?) that backed the Huskers up 15 yards after a 45-yard run by Martinez is a self-inflicted wound, a small detail that Nebraska’s didn’t take care of. Dedrick Mills got it all back and then some with a 43-yard run on the next play, but the Huskers stalled out after that and got zero points from a drive that included two 40-plus-yard plays.
“We are a few plays away, a few mistakes,” Martinez said. “Like I spoke on earlier, that sack in the red zone, that hurt us. Our defense was playing really well. They gave up a kick return for a touchdown and an interception to give Wisconsin good field position and I feel like we pretty much had outplayed them in the first half to that point. It’s the little things, it is the details. It is not the first time it happened this season and it is something we are going to continue to harp on and realize we have to get better at. We are not going to be the team we want to be until we can get those things corrected.”
This is game 10 of those mistakes; they’re running out of time to correct them. At this point, it seems like the opponent doesn’t matter; they simply can't get out of their own way. Each week we see back-breaking mistakes in all three phases of the game by players all throughout the lineup. The Huskers have consistently shown they're capable of making enough plays to beat every team they've lost to except for Ohio State and Minnesota, and that includes Wisconsin. But the mistakes negate all the positives and the result is a 4-6 record.
Until the Huskers find a way to clean up the bad reads, the bad tackling, the misalignments and all the other kinds of problems that are plaguing this team, the Huskers aren’t going to win.
Martinez’s interception didn’t cost Nebraska the game, but it’s an example of the larger issues that have contributed to so many of Nebraska’s losses this season and in years past.
That’s why Adrian Martinez’s second-quarter interception is this week’s Play of the Game.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.