The final box score of Nebraska's 38-17 loss to Wisconsin shows 353 rushing yards for the Badgers. Wisconsin went to the ground-and-pound late to seal the game and ran it seemingly at will during the third and fourth quarters.
However, a closer look at how Wisconsin accumulated those yards reveals a stat that defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, whose defense is focused primarily on preventing the big plays in a bend-but-don't-break style, can't be happy about.
Of those 353 yards, 200 of them came on eight explosive runs, those carries that gained 10 or more yards. Nebraska allowed runs of 30, 10, 75, 10, 15, 21 and 24 yards to the Badgers, and it was those plays where the defense not only bent but shattered that made the difference in the game.
What happened on those plays? Let's take a closer look at the six runs that gained 15 or more yards to find out.
First Quarter, First Drive
Wisconsin ripped off its first big run midway through its first drive. On second and 6 near midfield, Nebraska lined up in its base defense.
Nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg actually does a nice job of taking on then shedding the center as quarterback Alex Hornibrook hands off to running back Jonathan Taylor. Freedom Akinmoladun battles with left tackle Michael Deiter. Safety Joshua Kalu comes up into the box in run support, but outside linebacker Marcus Newby also looks inside.
Despite getting off his block, Stoltenberg can't quite get his hands on Taylor as the back cuts back left. Left guard Jon Deitzen takes on Newby. Kalu continues coming forward, getting past the crackback block.
However, because both Newby and Kalu went to the A-gap, the B-gap is wide open with Lamar Jackson the only defender with a chance to prevent the first down. However, Jackson is slow to recognize the run, chasing the receiver (who was looking to block Kalu) a bit too far inside, leaving him slightly out of position.
Jackson lunges at Taylor but slides right off of him, leaving plenty of green turf in front of him.
Taylor easily picks up the first down but has plenty more room to run down the sideline.
Kalu finally catches up and hits him just hard enough to knock him out of bounds.
The play should have been snuffed out right from the start as Stoltenberg had Taylor in his sights in the backfield, then again near the line of scrimmage as Nebraska had a numbers advantage. However, two players filling the same gap left another one completely unaccounted for, and then a missed tackle turned it from a modest gain into a first down and big yardage.
Second Quarter, Fourth Drive
For those of you that passed out in excitement following Stanley Morgan Jr.'s 80-yard touchdown, stop reading now.
Following that play that put the Huskers on the board and brought them within three of the Badgers, Wisconsin started on its 25-yard line with 1:20 left in the half.
True freshman Deontre Thomas, listed at 280 pounds, is in at the nose and lined up just to the left of the center in the A-gap. Taylor will take the handoff and look to run off the right side.
Despite having a head start with his alignment, the center manages to snap the ball then get in front of and engage Thomas. The guard gets to the second level to block Chris Weber, the tackle stuffs Akinmoladun, and the tight end blocks Luke Gifford.
Because Thomas can't get off his block, the A-gap is open and Taylor bursts through it. Carlos Davis is the only Blackshirt who managed to get off his block and he does his best to make it from the weak side to track down Taylor.
The 300-pound Davis runs with the 214-pound Taylor for a few strides but can't quite reach him. Meanwhile, safety Aaron Williams takes a bad angle, misjudging Taylor's speed (or something).
Williams lunges at taylor but also misses the tackle.
The last Husker who has a chance to prevent the touchdown is cornerback Eric Lee Jr.
That doesn't go well for Nebraska.
With Lee whiffing on his tackle, Taylor walks into the end zone for a 75-yard score.
In the blink of an eye (and a few missed tackles) Nebraska went from down three to down 10. Props to Carlos Davis for his effort on the play, but we see the downside of playing a 280-pound true freshman at nose tackle against a 315-pound center in Wisconsin's Tyler Biadasz.
"With 1:20 to play in the first half, they haven’t scored a touchdown," Diaco said. "Then a ridiculous play, completely preventable. Give them credit, but we caused that score. We did. Nobody got knocked down, pushed, battered. It was a few busts systematically on that play."
Third Quarter, Third Drive
Fast forward to the second half. A pick-six by Aaron Williams had just tied the game at 17-all and penalties on the kickoff had the Badgers starting at their own 7-yard line. On first down, the Badgers ran for 6 yards, setting up second and 4.
On this play, Nebraska shifts and boundary end Carlos Davis lines up over the A-gap between the guard and center. Boundary outside linebacker Sedrick King sets up a yard or two outside of the in-line tight end.
The way both teams are lined up allows Wisconsin to double team Davis while the tight end gets downfield to block Weber. The fullback kicks out to take on King.
Wisconsin dominates and opens up a big hole for Taylor. However, Nebraska has two defensive backs, Lee and Kalu, set up near the line to gain. Lee has the outside taken care of while Kalu is in position to cover the cutback lane. However, he doesn't stay there.
For whatever reason, Kalu tries to fill the same hole Lee did and in the process ran into Weber's back and tripped himself. Now, Nebraska has three defenders in the same spot and nobody to take away the cutback, which Taylor sees.
Taylor picks up the first down then jukes Williams out of his shoes….
Leaving the Nebraska safety on the turf. Dedrick Young II tackles him from behind, but not before Taylor picks up 15 yards.
Wisconsin continued its march down the field, converting a third and 4 with a 31-yard completion on a mesh route. On the next play, Wisconsin set up on first and 10 at the Nebraska 24-yard line. Nebraska lines up with something of a spread front, with three linemen and two outside linebackers across the line with Young lined up in the middle about 5 yards deep.
The center blocks Stoltenberg inside while the tackle blocks Carlos Davis to the outside, allowing the guard to get to the second level. At this point, Young is still about 3 or 4 yards deep.
Young has no chance against a 300-plus-pound guard, and because the block is so far past the line Taylor has his choice of where to run. I'm not sure what Young's responsibility was, but had he rushed the line to fill the gap it would have been a lot tougher on Taylor to get through. Alas, the hole is wide open. Newby tries to fly in from the weakside to meet Taylor coming through…
But he misses. Meanwhile, the left tackle and guard double-team and man-handle Akinmoladun 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Taylor has a lane right up the middle.
Lee manages to grab Taylor as he runs by and this time he holds one.
However, Taylor drags him another 6 yards before he finally goes down.
Taylor gives the Badgers a new set of downs from the 10-yard line, and after two short runs Hornibrook hits a receiver for a 5-yard touchdown pass, Wisconsin's final pass of the game.
Fourth Quarter, First Drive
Wisconsin ripped off two 20-plus-yard runs on this drive as the Badgers put the game away. On the second snap of the drive, Wisconsin slants its protection to the right and brings the fullback across to block Akinmoladun on the left side.
Akinmoladun can't beat the fullback's block while the left side of the line opens up a hole up the middle. Meanwhile, Aaron Williams appears to be following the quarterback for a minute, then realizes where the ball is and tries to backtrack.
It's too late to stop Taylor, though, who gets to the second level with a receiver ahead to block for him.
The receiver is actually too tentative, however, and Taylor, with a pair of safeties on his tail, runs right by him before the receiver makes contact.
Chris Jones was untouched and tried to bring Taylor down by his leg, but the back runs right through it. Jones slowed Taylor down enough to allow Williams to catch him from behind, but it also gave him a few extra yards.
The play went for 21 yards. After runs of 8, 6 and 3 yards, Wisconsin faced a second and 7. For some reason, Nebraska's inside linebackers, Weber and Young, line up right next to each other. The play will go to the left as the tight end blocks Newby, the tackle got to the second level to take on Weber coming across late, the guard attacks Khalil Davis and the center takes on Stoltenberg.
Hat on a hat, everyone accounted for. The B-gap is wide open for backup running back Rachid Ibrahim.
Khalil Davis can't get off his block in time to catch Ibrahim. Kalu gets slowed up by a blocker down field but manages to keep his feet.
Backup safety Marquel Dismuke sprinted all the way over from the other side of the field to try to make a play, but Ibrahim avoids the tackle with some nifty footwork.
Kalu wraps him up, but Ibrahim carried him another couple of yards before a few other Huskers converge on him and finally take him down.
This one went for 24 yards. Four runs later, Wisconisn punched it into the end zone to open up a two-score lead.
Tying it All Together
"When you’re playing a team like that, that is a condensed offensive team, tight ends involved, sometimes the receivers in tight and involved, the magnitude of not being in a gap, or being in position on the wrong side of the head of somebody can be magnified into plays," Coach Mike Riley said. "And it was magnified in big plays."
Better scheme, better players, better execution. Wisconsin won in every facet of the game on its explosive runs. Multiple Huskers missed their run fits throughout the game, including Kalu and Newby who were playing for the first time in a while on Saturday and whose rust showed. Nearly every player on the defense missed at least one tackle as well, which turned some nice plays into huge gains for the Badgers.
"I think sometimes when you’re struggling in run defense, and somebody’s trying to overcompensate, it’s got to be real team defense across the board, and we weren’t always perfect in that way," Riley said. "Somebody’s trying to overcompensate with what’s happened, and it gets you into more trouble."
Nebraska can't afford to have that happen two weeks in a row as the Buckeyes bring their dangerous ground game to Lincoln on Saturday.
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.