On a cool November afternoon and evening in Madison, the #19 ranked Wisconsin Badgers notched a hard-fought 35-28 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who have now lost eight consecutive contests against the short-legged omnivores. The offenses traded touchdowns all game with four apiece. The difference was that the Badgers returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a score. The litany continues as Nebraska loses its fifth straight game and has eight losses this season by a total of 49 points. Scott Frost's Nebraska squads are now winless in thirteen attempts against ranked teams and fall to 5-19 in one-score games. Nebraska has proven that they can play with anybody, but can they beat anybody but themselves?
During the bye week, Frost received a vote of confidence from athletic director Trev Alberts and had his contract renegotiated surrendering $1 million next year and $5 million total. Four offensive staffers were sacked since the offense has faltered more than the defense this season. They were replaced by newly promoted analysts acting as assistant coaches. Steve Cooper assumed the role as offensive coordinator Saturday and he and Frost dialed up a game plan that piled up 452 yards against the nation’s #1 ranked defense who came in yielding just 216.3 yards a game. Wisconsin was also #2 in scoring defense (14.6 pts./game) and #2 in pass defense (155.7 yds/game). The Badgers allowed 351 passing yards as the Huskers out yarded Wisconsin by 55 total yards and were on the field for 70 plays against a defense that had previously allowed just 56 plays per contest.
But the idea is to score more points than your opponent and three big plays by Wisconsin doomed the Huskers. In addition to the deficit incurred by the opening kickoff, the Blackshirts were gouged for touchdown runs of 71 and 53 yards by 17-year-old freshman Braelon Allen, who finished with 228 yards on 22 carries. That’s 21 points spotted to a team that didn’t need that much help. Allen may haunt the Huskers for three more years as he is strong and fast and will not be brought down by arm tackles above the waist. Wisconsin has a knack for pounding on the defense, but the Blackshirts held the Badgers scoreless on three trips inside the Nebraska 35-yard line and stuffed them twice on 4th down while holding them to 3 for 9 on third down.
In addition to giving up big plays, the Huskers were -2 in turnovers as Adrian Martinez threw interceptions to start both the third and fourth quarters. The first one was a throw into triple coverage where his receiver, Oliver Martin, failed to move to the ball, and the second was just a horribly thrown ball that fluttered into the hands of the same defender, Collin Wilder. The rumor is that Martinez was throwing with a bad shoulder, but it doesn’t help when you also throw off your back foot. Surprisingly, Martinez was not sacked, even though he was pressured throughout. The offensive line played well on three long drives, but with 30 seconds to play, a bonehead holding call by Bryce Benhart with the Huskers having a first and ten from Wisconsin 11 shifted the offensive strategy from a well-conceived drive to desperation. I’ll try not to complain too long about the pass interference against Zavier Betts on 4th down at the goal line, which would have given the Huskers one more play from the two. If the Huskers must rely on a call from Big Ten officials with the game on the line, they may never win again.
Offensively, Adrian Martinez completed 23-of-35 passes for 351 yards, marking his fourth career 300-yard passing game. He also rushed for 23 yards on nine carries to account for 374 yards of total offense and now becomes the Nebraska career leader in total offense with 10,792 yards, passing Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s previous record of 10,690 yards from 2013 to 2016. He has now passed for at least 200 yards in 12 consecutive games, the longest individual 200-yard passing streak in school history. His 1-yard TD run in the third quarter was his 35th career rushing touchdown, tied for fourth in Big Ten history. Martinez will continue to set records but may well be remembered as a fine young man who feasted on futility. He played extremely well in spots and once again, failed to lead his team to a win with the game in the balance.
With starter Rahmir Johnson not making the trip due to a nagging ankle injury, the rushing load was shared by a trio of running backs who netted 78 yards on 25 carries (3.1 yds/carry). Brody Belt led the group with 7 carries for 31 yards. Markese Stepp netted just 18 yards on 9 carries with his best run being a 7-yard almost touchdown on the Huskers opening drive, and he then scored from the one on the next play. Marvin Scott (9 carries for 29 yards) looked nimble down the stretch, and he had a 3-yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter.
The receiving highlights were led by tight end Austin Allen who set a single-game Nebraska record for receiving yards (143) by a tight end, breaking the previous mark of 137 yards by Johnny Mitchell against Oklahoma on Nov. 29, 1991. Significantly, 55 of Allen’s yards were garnered after the catch. He also he increased his season total to 36 receptions, eclipsing the previous record of 34 catches set by Tyler Hoppes in 2017. Allen now has 547 receiving yards this season, 13 shy of the Nebraska tight end record (Junior Miller, 560 receiving yards in 1978). Here’s hoping he blows that record away against Iowa. With three of his catches longer than 20 yards in the game, he now has 10 of those on the season and will continue to lead all Big Ten tight ends with his average of 15.2 yards per reception. One of the most impressive plays of the game was on Nebraska’s penultimate drive. On a 4th and 2 from the Wisconsin 45-yard line, Martinez scrambled to his right and launched a 38-yard pass to Allen who went out at the 7-yard line (even though it looked like it was the 5). As Allen prepares to finish his career, highly touted freshman Thomas Fidone returned from injury and played today, gaining experience as a blocker.
Senior receiver Samori Toure had seven receptions for 113 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown in the second quarter. He had a 42-yard grab on Nebraska’s first play on offense and added a 27-yarder on that initial scoring drive. He had two catches longer than 40 yards in the game and now has seven receptions of better than 40 yards this season. Toure averages 20.8 yards per catch in 2021. Toure posted his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season, tying the school record also held by Stanley Morgan Jr. who had five 100-yard receiving games in 2017. In all, ten receivers were targeted and nine had receptions. The lone exception was Oliver Martin who missed his chance at a catch or at least the opportunity to prevent an interception.
Nebraska’s defense was without two starters in outside linebacker/nickel JoJo Domann and safety Deontai Williams and they were sorely missed. They were also without outside linebacker Pheldarius Payne, who is key to the defensive rotation. In the 1st quarter, Caleb Tannor (2 tackles) got his bell rung and missed the rest of the game. The next play, Braelon Allen went 71 yards for a score. Then, in the second half, Damion Daniels (2 tackles) was injured and missed key drives down the stretch. The loss of these players was significant to the outcome.
Outside linebacker Garrett Nelson led the team with six stops and had a six-yard sack in the second quarter, giving him a team-leading five sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this season. He broke up a pass in the 2nd quarter but also made the mistake of trying to tackle Allen high and was unsuccessful. Luke Reimer finished with five tackles to increase his season total to 101. He is the first Husker since Mohamed Barry in 2018 to have 100 tackles in a season. Casey Rogers and Ben Stille both played well with four tackles a piece with Stille contributing by knocking down a pass. Cam Taylor-Britt (4 tackles) had a beautiful pass breakup late in the first half to end a Badger drive. The defense faced just 49 snaps for the game.
Special Teams were costly again as they yielded a touchdown on the opening kickoff. The kickoff and punt teams have been generally solid throughout the season aided by Brendan Franke touchbacks. But Franke struggled to reach the end zone in the first half, and it led to 3 returns for 138 yards. He had two touchbacks after intermission. William Przystup averaged 38 yards on just two punts and a touchback could have been prevented if our down man would have just caught the ball at about the 2-yard line. Alante Brown called fair catch on a kickoff return and then fumbled the ball, so the offense started at the 6 instead of the 25-yard line.
One more game remains and in a very disappointing season, Iowa becomes our bowl game. Iowa put up just 156 total yards against Wisconsin in a game they lost 27-7. The Ditch Chickens may be 9-2 but they also lost at home 24-7 to Purdue and their schedule has been suspect. Their crossover games were against Indiana, Maryland and Penn State (who played most of the game without its starting quarterback). They are tied with Wisconsin for the lead in the division, but they are ripe for the picking on Senior Day in Lincoln. Just once this year, let’s see the Huskers win against a rival. Happy Thanksgiving and Go Big Red!