There were about 20 minutes left in a one-score game when Wisconsin attempted its last pass of the night. Nineteen minutes and 51 seconds, if we want to be exact, and it seems like we should if we’re to properly honor the fact that the Badgers felt no need to throw the ball on one of the stages where that sort of approach was once perfected and expected.
Call it the ultimate throwback.
The Badgers’ last pass was the final play of a 10-play, 93-yard drive that put Wisconsin back in the lead. Five minutes of game clock before that, safety Aaron Williams had reset the game with a pick-six, effectively erasing one that ended Nebraska’s first drive and giving the Husker fans in Memorial Stadium the thing they’d hoped they’d get all week – a chance to impact the game.
When a pair of penalties on the ensuing kickoff set the Badgers back at their own 7, it was no longer just a chance, but a good chance for the 89,860 mostly black-clad fans. Do your worst.
Then Wisconsin became Wisconsin again. The Huskers forced two third downs on that drive. The first one resulted in a 31-yard pass from Alex Hornibrook to Quintez Cephus, Wisconsin’s longest pass play of the night. The second one was the same combo, this time from the 5-yard line on third and goal. And that was it. Wisconsin put its passing game away for the night.
Nebraska Coach Mike Riley said Wisconsin moved the ball “mechanically, methodically, physically” on the drive. He hadn’t seen anything yet.
Over the Badgers’ next two drives they ran the ball 20 times for 120 yards and two touchdowns. All that was left to do on the third drive after that was kneel on it.
Husker fans have had to get used to maddening losses against the team from Madison. In six-and-a-half seasons of Big Ten play, there are already at least two all-timers in there. While nowhere near as bad as 70-31 or 59-24, this year’s game might belong on the list anyway for a few reasons.
One, the Huskers played pretty well for a half. Nebraska’s 313 yards at half time were more than any offense had managed against Wisconsin in a game so far this season. Minus one big bust – a 75-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Taylor – the Blackshirts were giving up a perfectly average number of yards per play (5.66) to an offense that had been anything but this season. And the Huskers still trailed 17-10.
Two, the thought coming into 2017 was that this was the year the Huskers got over the hump in the Riley-Chryst era for each respective school. The last two games, when Nebraska was OK and Wisconsin was good, were close. On Saturday, it looked like the gap has widened, not narrowed.
Three, this may be the first Wisconsin loss where Husker fans had to truly feel what it felt like for so many of those opponents who were ground down, choked out, eroded away by the great Nebraska teams of the past, one of which happened to be in the building to see it. In 2014’s 59-24 win, Wisconsin averaged 10.96 yards per rush. In 2012’s 70-31 win, it was 10.78. Those are video game numbers, Tecmo Bo stuff. But in this game, it was only 7.2, still plenty good, but it just feels more, I don’t know, mechanical, methodical, physical.
And while it’s certainly shocking that Wisconsin thought and then continued to prove that it didn’t need to pass with nearly 20 minutes remaining, it’s not really the runs that matter. Sure, they make for a convenient comparison point, but what we’re really talking about here is execution. That’s actually what Nebraska did for so many years. It out-executed teams and it just happened to happen mostly while running the football.
Wisconsin does that now and it does it as well as anybody. I asked center Michael Decker if the players felt that, if they went into a game against Wisconsin knowing the threshold for a winning level of execution was higher than it was against other teams. His answer speaks for itself.
“Yeah, it definitely is,” he said. “They control the ball, that’s one of the things they do well on offense. They run the ball, they milk the clock, they do whatever they can to continue to pound the rock. It’s just a matter of when we have opportunities against good teams we have to execute. Obviously there are things we can do to improve on that.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco put it another way.
“You’re not flying at 8,000 feet playing against an offense like that, where you can slide the airplane door open and everybody’s fine,” he said. “You’re flying at 40,000 feet and even just a small, pinhole crack in the window causes a major problem in the cabin. Every little pressure point is going to get attacked, and get attacked with talent and ferocity. You have to try to shut it off in other ways. And that’s what we do. That’s what we’re working towards.”
Wisconsin, more than any other regular Husker opponent, always seems to show just how much more work there is to do in Lincoln.
Nebraska had a lot of nice nods to nostalgia Saturday night. The Badgers had one, too. It was the one Husker fans least wanted to see, but it might’ve been the best one.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.