Lots of familiar themes rose to the surface Saturday in Nebraska’s 35-28 loss to AP No. 19-rated Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium, a result that was lockstep in character for the snakebit 2021 Cornhusker team, complete with lots of effort and heart, a stunning number of critical errors and bad decisions and a general lack of success at crunch time.
The Huskers’ fifth consecutive loss and seventh in their last eight games produced the usual curious montage of hope, despair, jaw-dropping mistakes, big plays, belated comebacks and finally, frustration, that has marked Scott Frost’s fourth Husker team.
- Nebraska outyarded its rated opponent but getting outscored, with a special teams breakdown the difference in the final score.
- Fourth-year quarterback Adrian Martinez produced the same amount of turnovers as touchdowns, and came up short on a drive that could have tied the score in the final two minutes.
- Nebraska offensive tackles whiffed on pash rushers, resorted to holding to make up for it, and in general, showed little if any improvement.
- Special teams blunders bit the Huskers again. This time, the kickoff coverage unit, which arguably had shown the most improvement of any kicking game element, gave up a touchdown, and the kickoff return unit, arguably the least productive single unit on on the Husker team, was even more inept than usual.
Let’s start with special teams. Any casual fan who’s watched Nebraska play the last two years clearly understands that Alante Brown is no threat to return a kickoff past the 25-yard line, so why does Mike Dawson keep sending him out to receive kicks? And if he’s really the best the Huskers have to offer, what does that say about the blocking schemes and other personnel on the unit that Dawson is also in charge of?
I know the Huskers had a bad experience with Bruce Read, their last full time special teams coach, but that’s no excuse not to try to hire a top-notch one.
The ongoing toxic mix of inconsistent line play and inconsistent quarterback play is death to Frost’s spread offense. There was enough of that to keep the Huskers from winning, most notably the two interceptions thrown by Martinez, and the holding penalty on Bryce Benhart that gutted Nebraska’s last-ditch drive in the final minute. But let’s give Martinez and the offense credit for creativity, finding ways to gash the Wisconsin defense with Samori Toure and Austin Allen.
Nebraska hit many of the metrics needed to produce a victory. The Huskers ran 70 plays from scrimmage, significantly more than the clock-draining Badgers usually allow their opponent to run, and stayed balanced (35 rushes, 35 passes) against the top-rated defense in the nation. For that matter, the Huskers won the time-of-possession battle, controlling the ball for for more than 33 minutes. Then again, it failed on the most important metric, going minus-two in turnover margin.
Martinez, now the all-time career leader in passing and total offense for Nebraska, still has trouble with field vision. On the Huskers' next-to-last play of the game, he forced a pass to a well-covered Toure inside the five with Manning breaking clean over the middle that would likely have set up NU with a fourth-and-10 instead of a fourth-and-20.
Sean Beckton and the makesheft crew of offensive analysts, graduate assistants and administrators did a better job than Erik Chinander and his defensive staff on this day, except if you pull Benhart for his penalties and overall poor play, why put him back into the game? That decision came back to bite the Huskers in the final two minutes.
It was the low point of the season for the defense, which was a shame, because that’s the unit that has kept Nebraska competitive this year. Ben Stille, Marquel Dismuke, Deontai Williams and JoJo Domann don’t deserve their fate of playing their entire career without a winning season in Lincoln. If there’s one thing the Super Seniors accomplished this season, though, it was restoring Nebraska’s fighting spirit, and ability to lose with honor to some of the best teams in the nation. Some would call them moral victories. I don’t, but it’s no shame to lose to a Top 20 team by one touchdown on the road.
Playing the entire game without Domann and Williams, most of the game without Caleb Tannor and about half the game without Damien Daniels was a handicap for the Blackshirts, but it was a day of bad tackling for the Big Red.
Once again, Nebraska players tried to tackle a big Wisconsin running back by hitting him high, and once again, that strategy made the Huskers and their defensive coordinator look foolish. Cam Taylor-Britt tried to shoulder-bump Braelon Allen to the ground, but Allen ran over him, continuing unimpeded on a 71-yard touchdown run. Once again, a Wisconsin running back piled up more than 200 yards, only this was a 17-year-old freshman instead of the upperclassmen the Badgers usually bludgeon NU with.
Allen’s 53-yard touchdown run broke a 28-all tie with 3:50 remaining, and Martinez made one more try to lead the Huskers on a game-tying drive in the final minutes. Once again, he failed, thanks to Benhart’s critical penalty and a stunningly bad no-call by the officials on a pass interference penalty by a Badger defensive back who grabbed Zavier Betts near the goal line.
Frost erupted with rage on the sideline, but to no avail, illustrating that coaches should be able to challenge calls (or no calls) on penalties.
It all fits into the theme of the 2021 season, a year in which Nebraska has done whatever it absolutely needed to do to lose the game. Good teams find ways to win close games. The Huskers are not a good team. Their 3-8 record says that loudly and clearly. However, it’s a team with enough talent for a good coaching staff to mold into a six- or seven-win campaign. That’s the biggest shame of this season.
More coverage: HuskerMax game page