Nebraska Football's quarterback Adrian Martinez Throws Against Wisconsin
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Play of the Game: Nebraska’s Fourth-and-20 Incompletion

November 20, 2021

Another week, another one-score loss for Nebraska, and once again it came down to the very end.

Nebraska made some key mistakes but offset them with some spectacular plays, and as a result the Huskers gave themselves a chance to win at the end. Nebraska marched into scoring range in the final 30 seconds before seeing the drive derailed. It came down to one last play.

This week’s Play of the Game is the incomplete pass on fourth-and-20 in the final 10 seconds.

Braelon Allen took advantage of Nebraska’s poor tackling to rip off a 53-yard go-ahead touchdown with 3:50 remaining. Collin Larsh sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, setting the Huskers up at their own 35 to start their drive.

The Huskers got off to a great start as Adrian Martinez steadily moved the ball down the field. He got the drive started with a 4-yard run then competed passes to Brody Belt, Samori Touré, Levi Falck and Touré again to move the Huskers inside the Wisconsin 25.

After the Badgers stopped a first-down run by Belt, Austin Allen drew a pass interference penalty to give the Huskers a first-and-10 at the 11-yard line. Then things went sideways.

A holding call on Bryce Benhart knocked the Huskers back out of the red zone to the 21. Wisconsin turned up the pressure and forced incomplete passes on second and third down. The Huskers initially picked up the pressure on third down, but whether Martinez felt phantom pressure or just made a bad throw, a ball intended for Touré didn’t land anywhere near him, setting up fourth-and-20.

Touré subbed out after third down and Travis Vokolek replaced him as the Huskers lined up in 12 personnel with Brody Belt in the backfield alongside Martinez. Zavier Betts lined up to the right while Vokolek, Allen and Omar Manning started on the left. Needing to gain 20 yards, quick-developing players weren’t really an option. Here’s what they went with.

On the snap, Belt chipped Wisconsin’s best edge rusher, Nick Herbig, then released into the left flat. However, Herbig continued to power forward through the chip and managed to get past Turner Corcoran.

Elsewhere, the Badgers ran a stunt with linebacker Noah Burks looping around behind defensive linemen Keeanu Benton and Matt Henningsen. Nouredin Nouli didn’t seem to identify the stunt as he chipped Henningsen despite having two other linemen there, and that took him out of position to pick up Burks looping around. On the other side, Benton ran right by Benhart.

The result? Martinez had three Badgers in his face, forcing him to throw off his back foot 12 yards deep in the backfield. Looking at the play, Martinez appeared to have identified the best option in Betts. The Badgers had Vokolek and Manning covered, and Allen probably too considering how far the ball would have had to travel to hit him in the back of the end zone.

Betts had a step on his defender, but because of the pressure Martinez wasn’t able to put enough on the throw and lead his receiver. Betts went up to try to make a play on the ball, but Wisconsin corner Faion Hicks ran into Betts’ back and knocked him off balance before the ball arrived. It was a pretty blatant pass interference, but the Huskers didn’t get the call.

“I need to go back and watch on film and see the whole grasp of the play there,” Martinez said. “We had a lot of crossing-type routes and that’s where I thought we had the best shot. A situation like that, fourth-and-15, you need to give someone a chance and so that’s what I was trying to do.”

Here’s another look.

Frost said after the game that he didn’t get an explanation on why there wasn’t a flag and that he was probably too angry to even ask for one. The officials did end up issuing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Nebraska sideline after Frost gave the nearest official an earful.

“I said you need to throw a flag on me because that’s — I don’t want to talk about it,” Frost said. “Listen, we played a really good football team tonight. Wisconsin’s good in all three phases. You can’t start a game with a kick return; that there’s seven points right there and we lost by seven. They’re good in the run game, but we gave up too many big plays in the run game, just missed tackles. I thought we shot ourselves in the foot on a couple offensive drives with penalties and it’s happened too much. We need to get it fixed. We’re going to get it fixed. We keep putting ourselves in position against really good teams. We’ve got to get it done.”

Frost said after the game he would have gone for two had Nebraska scored rather than kicking the extra point and going for the tie, so the game really did come down to that play. They could have avoided that by making a few plays earlier in the game, but that didn’t happen. Nebraska had one last chance to give itself a chance to win the game, and through a combination of poor protection and poor officiating, the Huskers weren’t able to make the play.

That’s why Nebraska’s failed fourth fourth-down attempt at the end is this week’s Play of the Game.

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