There must be something about the first home night game of each Big Ten season for Nebraska that brings out history. With memories of the school-record 21-point comeback a year ago against Ohio State, the Huskers erased a 17-point second half deficit to defeat Wisconsin 30-27 Saturday night before the fifth-largest crowd in Memorial Stadium history. Not a seat was empty as the second-largest comeback in school history was in the books.
The 85,962 stayed through a miserable first quarter for the Huskers. After a very cool Tunnel Walk which featured not only Jack Hoffman—an inspiration to Husker Nation—and another inspiration, Olympic Gold medalist Jordan Burroughs—the Huskers fell flat to start the game. Unlike last year’s matchup with the Badgers, Nebraska found themselves in a first quarter hole that put them in familiar territory against last year’s Big Ten champions. Jared Abbrederis found himself open for a 54 yard catch, Montee Ball found the end zone twice, and Rex Burkhead fumbled all inside of just over a quarter and a half to give Wisconsin a 14-0 lead. Uh oh, here we were going again…
Or so we thought. Ameer Abdullah ran a kick back to the Wisconsin 13 before Nebraska had to settle for a field goal. It looked like a win for Wisconsin, but points are points and Nebraska was on the board trailing 14-3. Through the first quarter, Wisconsin was clearly winning the battle up front on both sides of the ball. That would begin to change in the second quarter and dramatically so.
Poor Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The converted wide receiver-to-cornerback nearly got to Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer after Nebraska had stopped the Badgers near mid field. But alas, a roughing the punter penalty on Jean-Baptiste gave the ball back to Wisconsin on the Nebraska 44. Eventually, Joel Stave—who was fantastic for about 2 ½ quarters at quarterback for the Badgers—hooked up with Abbrederis on a 29-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 20-3. However, Jack Russell (Wisconsin kicker, not a terrier) missed the extra point and it stayed 20-3.
After trading punts, Nebraska took over on their own 7 yard line with 8:25 to go until halftime. What followed was perhaps the Huskers’ most impressive drive of the season. 12 plays, 93 yards and 5:13 later, Nebraska was back in the game after a three-yard touchdown pass to Burkhead from Martinez that gave the Huskers life. Russell would miss a 41-yard field goal and we went to halftime with the Badgers up 20-10. Given how the first half went, as a Husker fan you couldn’t be too upset.
The Badgers had essentially been gifted their final 13 points of the half thanks to a costly penalty and a fumble by the Huskers. This theme would continue early in the third quarter, as Nebraska gave the Badgers another seven points after Martinez was stripped by David Gilbert and Chris Borland recovered at the Nebraska 14. Three plays later, Montee Ball scored from two yards out to give the Badgers a 27-10 lead. But Nebraska didn’t quit, going 77 yards in four plays with Martinez going 38 yards on a delayed draw to make it 27-17. This drive hammered home the fact that Nebraska wasn’t going away.
You started to see Nebraska’s lines turn the corner a bit in the second quarter—especially on the drive which produced their first touchdown. It became obvious at this point in the third quarter that Nebraska was controlling both lines of scrimmage. After forcing a three and out, Martinez led the offense down the field again, capping it off with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kyler Reed in traffic to make it 27-24. 10 plays, 75 yards in 3:41 to put the Huskers within a field goal. They’d get that field goal with 55 seconds left in the quarter, as we went to the fourth all tied up at 27.
As a numbers guy, I really started to look at the numbers in the second and third quarter. Wisconsin was doing most of their damage with Stave through the air, as Abbrederis had 107 yards receiving by halftime. Ball had 17 carries for 59 yards by halftime as well and had rolled up 205 yards of total offense. In the third quarter, Stave was 2 of 6 for 34 yards and Ball managed just 10 carries for 21 yards. Meanwhile, the Huskers racked up 184 yards of total offense and were moving up and down the field at will. Remember, Nebraska’s scoring drives in the third quarter were 77, 75, and 47 yards. Other than Wisconsin’s 71 yard scoring drive to open the game, the Badgers longest drive was essentially 44 yards (it was actually a 65 yard drive—the penalty on Jean-Baptiste gave the Badgers a 44-yard field to work with) as they couldn’t move the football. Nebraska had even managed to shore up their pass defense as Eric Martin, Baker Steinkuhler, and Will Compton were starting to get to Stave.
The fourth quarter was even more decisive for Nebraska, but not on the scoreboard. Once the Huskers were able to knock the redshirt freshman Stave off his game, the defensive line held their ground in the running game and it was a quarter dominated by the Blackshirts. The same unit that was gashed for 344 yards in a loss to UCLA, was suddenly the strength of not only the defense, but the strength of the team. Nebraska forced a three and out then got some good fortune on their next drive. Abdullah fumbled, the ball bounced to Martinez who caught it in stride, and went another nine yards to the Nebraska 30 for a first down. Two runs from Burkhead and an 18-yard run from Martinez put Nebraska in business again, but the Huskers would settle for a 41-yard field goal from Maher to take their first lead at 30-27.
Stave stood in the pocket and delivered a 19-yard strike to Kenzel Doe after another Maher touchback as Wisconsin went on the move. Enter the defensive again, as Daimion Stafford broke through and forced an intentional grounding penalty on Stave and brought up 3rd and 23. The defense held and forced another Wisconsin punt. Eventually, it came down to a fourth-and-one near mid field that decided the game.
Alonzo Whaley had been benched after the loss to UCLA. The senior linebacker said he deserved it too. If he ever needed to make amends, he did it and then some as he crashed through the Badgers line, met Ball and knocked the ball loose as Harvey Jackson recovered to end the game. Nebraska had done it—and in much more dominating fashion than the 30-27 final score would suggest. Here’s how it shook out statistically.
Nebraska’s defense allowed 295 yards of total offense from Wisconsin. In the second half, they allowed a mere 90 yards to the Badgers and only 23 yards on the ground. The Badgers, with all-Americans on their offensive line and a 2011 Heisman trophy finalist in their backfield, ran for an average of 1.4 yards per carry. Again, let’s remember how UCLA ripped the Blackshirts for 644 yards of total offense back on September 8th. I’m not going to pretend that this is the same Wisconsin team that was prolific on offense in 2011, but the improvement of this year’s Nebraska defense from that week two debacle in Los Angeles is what won them this game. Once Nebraska’s offense stopped giving the Badgers short fields to score touchdowns on, Wisconsin couldn’t move the ball and the Husker offense did just enough to win it.
It wasn’t the best game for the offense. Five fumbles in total, two of which were lost, often gave Wisconsin great field position which they capitalized on. But at key points when Nebraska had to answer after going down 17 points (twice, at 20-3 and 27-10) the offense answered the Bell. They weren’t exclusively on long plays either. They were on long drives which asserted their coming dominance of the line of scrimmage. 12 plays for 93 yards in the second quarter and 4 plays for 77 yards in the third quarter, which was followed up by a 10 play, 75-yard drive to make it 27-24.
259 yards rushing and another 181 through the air paced a balanced Husker offensive attack. Martinez, who’d been called ‘a soft kid’ and threw passes that resembled skipping rocks according to Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert prior to the game, was a steady, confident leader for Nebraska who played one of his best games as a Husker. Not merely for his stats, but for the way he handled the offense. He kept Nebraska’s pace fast in the second half as the Badgers failed to keep up, which strangely resembled a certain game against Ohio State last year.
Let’s go to the grades…
Awful in the first quarter. Better in the second quarter. Nearly dominating in the third and fourth quarter. You usually don’t want incomplete games, but if you’re going to have them, its best to have the complete portion of them be in the second half. The offensive line dominated after a shaky start, Martinez settled into a groove, and the rest is history. What we saw from this offense, and have seen through five games, is that any one of about six or seven guys can make the big play when necessary.
Jamal Turner’s 27-yard catch was his only reception of the game, but it lead to the third-quarter score that pulled Nebraska within 27-24. Kenny Bell hauled in a huge 20-yard reception and drew a 15-yard penalty all on the same play on the drive of the game which brought Nebraska to within 27-17. Rex Burkhead dominated in the fourth quarter as he ran seven times 49 yards to finish with 18 carries for 86 yards on the evening. And Ameer Abdullah chipped in 252 all-purpose yards in a team effort. The offensive line and Martinez get most of the plaudits, but this was that team effort as Nebraska needed every one of those points and yards to gut out a victory. We’ll give the offense a B-, lower because of the early miscues.
Awful in the first quarter. Better in the second quarter. Completely dominating in the third and fourth quarter. It was an effort for the ages for a unit which saw their share of criticism, even after two good performances against overmatched competition in Arkansas State and Idaho State. While this year’s Wisconsin is not a juggernaut, they represent what Nebraska struggled with in 2011 on the defensive side of the ball—a balanced offense that uses the play action pass and has a strong running game.
The defensive line—which saw the return of Chase Rome, by the way—held Wisconsin to 56 yards rushing for the entire game on 41 carries. Harvey Jackson’s fumble recovery thanks to Alonzo Whaley on Wisconsin’s last offensive play proved to be a fitting end to the game as Montee Ball was stuffed in the back field and the defense won the game. Some shaky situations in pass defense for sure, but the secondary shored up their problems as the front seven got pressure on Stave and eventually, Danny O’Brien who entered in the fourth quarter. Numbers don’t lie, the defense gets an A-
Abdullah’s 83 yard return helped Nebraska get on the board after Wisconsin took a 14-0 lead. Brett Maher knocked in three of four field goal attempts and added six touchbacks on seven kickoffs—the non-touchback saw the Badgers start on their 10-yard line after a well-placed kickoff from Maher. The penalty on Jean-Baptiste was huge and helped Wisconsin score their third touchdown of the game and reach that 20-3 lead. No big miscues that led to Badgers points and a few strong plays which led to Husker points—hard to ask for more. We’ll give the special teams a solid B-.
So after it’s all said and done, Nebraska had the second-largest comeback in school history, against a Wisconsin team that was a 12-13 point underdog. Oddly enough, the Huskers were a double-digit favorite against Ohio State in the largest comeback in school history last season. We saw in both games an offensive line which wore down its defensive counterparts, an offensive tempo which kept defenses off balance and timely turnovers forced from less heralded members of the Blackshirts (Jean-Baptiste in 2011, Whaley in 2012). What does it mean for Nebraska in 2012?
Obviously it’s hard to tell after one game of Big Ten play. 1-0 looks a lot better than 0-1, especially after the victory comes against the very team that embarrassed you and put you at 0-1 in 2011. Next up is a game at Ohio State, which Nebraska will not be favored to win, but certainly can win. The Big Ten is still wide open after one week as expected. It looks like it’s going to be an interesting ride again in 2012.