Saturday’s senior day 15-14 loss to Wisconsin was Nebraska’s 13th one-score loss in the past two seasons. Time and time again, Nebraska comes up just one or two plays short of victory, and Saturday was the latest example of that.
Nebraska scored first to take the lead midway through the second quarter and held it until the final minute. Wisconsin scored a go-ahead touchdown with 35 seconds to play, and this week’s Play of the Game is Graham Mertz’s 27-yard completion to Isaac Guerendo that set up the score.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting them to close people out, and that’s going to happen with maturity and doing a better job,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said.
Nebraska led by as much as 14-3 in the second half, but after some timely plays by the defense (and mistakes by Wisconsin), the Badgers finally broke through with a touchdown with 10:07 to play.
Nebraska followed that score up with a five-play, 12-yard drive and a punt. The defense got one stop, forcing a three-and-out, as Ernest Hausmann then Colton Feist and Garrett Nelson made big plays before a favorable review call overturned a third-down completion.
The offense got the ball back with 4:58 remaining and a chance to chew up some clock with a couple of first downs. On first down, Anthony Grant got hit in the backfield for a loss of 3 yards. On second down, Grant evaded a defender in the backfield to pick up 6 yards, setting up a third-and-7. Mark Whipple dialed up a deep shot for Trey Palmer, but nobody got open and Palmer wasn’t able to haul in a back-shoulder throw to the sideline.
“You run the ball and you lose 2, you’re just not blocking it clean, so we tried to get it in the air,” Joseph said. “Right there, like I said, we’ve got to teach them to close them out, how can we close them out?”
Nebraska punted the ball back to Wisconsin and the Badgers began their drive at midfield, needing a touchdown to take the lead.
The Badgers ripped off runs of 5 and 8 yards on plays where defenders got a hand on the back with a chance to drop him early on and couldn’t make the play. On third down, Garrett Nelson finally did drop Guerendo for just a 3-yard gain, but he stayed down after the play and he had to check out briefly.
On second-and-7 from the 34-yard line, Wisconsin lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). Nebraska countered with its base nickel defense featuring Ochaun Mathis in Nelson’s place and Javin Wright at nickel (Isaac Gifford had to slide over to safety after Nebraska lost Marques Buford Jr. to a knee injury on the first drive).
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On the snap, the run-heavy Badgers dropped back to pass. The tight end runs an out route. The receiver to the right runs a dig. The other two receivers run shallow crossers. But the first option is a wheel route out of the backfield to Guerendo.
Nebraska rushed four and got zero pressure. Wright was responsible for the back and did a good job of avoiding the crosser to get to Guerendo, but the back used his momentum against him and cut it up field. Mertz saw Guerendo had Wright beat, took a couple steps to his right and let the ball go. Wright wasn’t able to gain ground after initially stumbling and Mertz dropped it over the top to Guerendo.
The play would have ended in a touchdown immediately if Guerendo hadn’t left his feet to make the catch, but the damage was done as he gained 27 yards and set the Badgers up with a first-and-goal from the 7 with 1:27 to go.
At that point, Mickey Joseph chose not to use a timeout. The Badgers ran down the whole play clock and snapped the ball with 1:01 to go, gaining 1 yard on the ground. Nebraska did use a timeout at that point, then Wisconsin ran it again as Chez Mellusi gained 5 yards down to the 1. This time Wisconsin called a timeout with 45 seconds remaining and Mertz scored on a sneak, not an honest play, to give Wisconsin its first lead of the game with 35 seconds remaining (never mind that a QB sneak from the 1 somehow ate up 10 seconds of game time).
Nelson returned to the game and blew up the two-point conversion with a big hit on Mertz’s draw attempt, but the offense did nothing with the final 35 seconds and the game ended on an incomplete pass.
“In a perfect world, we get that first down and at the end of the day, the game’s over, is what we really thought,” tight end Travis Vokolek said. “ Unfortunately that didn’t happen and that’s our fault. Our coaches call the plays for us, they set us up to execute. As an offense as a whole, we just didn’t execute very well. Not everyone did their job and those are the results that happen. It’s unfortunate we had to put our defense in that spot. I thought they played great. I give credit to G-Nelly and all those guys on defense; they played their rear ends off, they played really well today. It hits hard that the offense had to put them in that situation and we take full responsibility for that.”
For all intents and purposes, that 27-yard gain was the Huskers’ final dagger (and the longest play of the day for Wisconsin). Nebraska’s only hope at that point was likely a Wisconsin penalty (like the false start from the 1 late in the first half), but the Badgers played clean football and punched the ball in. That’s why Guerendo’s completion is this week’s Play of the Game.
That being said, the defense held Wisconsin to 15 points. The Huskers didn’t completely shut the Badger run game down (235 rushing yards at 4.5 a pop), but they made timely stops to keep Wisconsin out of the end zone up until that point. The defense was on the field for nearly 37 minutes and 70 snaps.
“That’s a lot of snaps when a team is running the ball at you because eventually they’ll start leaning on you,” Joseph said. “That’s when you have to play complementary football. We have to get all three phases to go. We have to keep the ball on offense to give them a chance, so that’s just not on them. That’s on the entire scheme of things.”
Despite getting Casey Thompson back at quarterback, the offense totaled 171 yards and just 14 points with none coming in the fourth quarter. While the Play of the Game came on defense, the loss falls firmly on the shoulders of an offense that either doesn’t know or simply can’t execute what it wants to do.
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.