Saturday night, more than usual, a Memorial Stadium crowd yearned for a throwback.
Nebraska fans, as committed and faithful as any fan base in all of sports, came together, sensing something big. A palpable buzz, perhaps a turning point for this Husker football team. Or maybe the reunion of the 1997 national championship team evoked this passion.
Whatever the case, the Sea of Red (and Black) provided an electric atmosphere. These folks wanted oh-so-bad to lift coach Mike Riley’s team to a feel-good victory over Wisconsin. Give the Freedom Trophy a new home.
They did their part. They set the stage.
Which is probably what makes this outcome so terribly frustrating, so disappointing. Nebraska simply couldn’t stop Wisconsin and its methodical ways. Not only that, the manner in which the Badgers conducted business in their workmanlike 38-17 victory added a bit to the grief.
No. 9 Wisconsin ran 49 times for 353 yards. Another rising freshman, tailback Jonathan Taylor, averaged 10 yards per carry en route to 249 yards. The Badgers scored touchdowns on their final three possessions, and ran the ball 22 straight times, and with little resistance.
Oh, Nebraska ran the ball, too. Sophomore Devine Ozigbo produced his third straight 100-yard rushing game with a career-high 112 yards on 23 carries.
“We knew we needed to run the ball if we wanted to open up the rest of our offense,” Ozigbo said. “We knew they were good, and this was a challenge that we had to meet. Overall, when it comes to a specific run game, we did a pretty good job of that.”
But on a night meant to honor a team that ran for at least 335 yards in every game of the 1997 season, the wrong Big Red paid homage. Wisconsin, which has made a habit of running behind behemoth linemen, imposing its will and bleeding the game clock, has made this an identity.
That’s fine for Nebraska junior guard Gerald Foster. What works for Wisconsin, he said, isn’t necessarily what works for these Huskers, who have talented skill players at receiver, and a quarterback, Tanner Lee, in whom Foster has great faith.
“I believe in what we have with our quarterback,” Foster said of Lee, who was 16-of-32 passing, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Stanley Morgan. “He’s a gunslinger, in the sense of him being able to do what he does.
“I don’t want us to be running the ball the whole time. We have great backs, definitely, but being able to have two parts of the game, being able to run it, being able to pass it at the same time is why you become an ‘A’ list team.
“I’m not saying Wisconsin’s not. That’s their identity. That’s something they stick to. But what we’re going to stick to is what we’ve had good success with, which is being able to run the ball on the downs we need to run it and trust ourselves in Tanner so he’ll be able to do the big things in the pocket.”
That said, Riley witnessed how effectively Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) managed its rushing attack, and would like Nebraska’s rushing attack to generate similar oomph, even if not for 22 straight plays.
“You know, the proof will only prove when we get there, how long we’ll take,” Riley said, “but I feel good about where we’re going. We have definitely made some progress in some of those areas. We made progress within this season, with some individuals running the ball, with what we’ve done in protection, with what we’re doing with our passing game.
“We’re being very thoughtful and selective with that, so we’re making some progress. It wasn’t good enough progress against that team that was ready, that is really ready to do what they do real well.”
Here’s what first-year Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco saw in the Badgers, whom he played against while at Iowa in the mid-1990s.
“A typical Wisconsin back, a typical Wisconsin offensive line and typical Wisconsin tight ends,” Diaco said.
Nebraska had entered the game having allowed its last three opponents 213 yards, 194 yards and 199 yards.
That’s total yards.
Yet a crisp Wisconsin offensive scheme caught Nebraska defenders ever-so-slightly out of position, here and there, and made the Blackshirts pay.
“You’re not flying at 8,000 feet playing against an offense like that, where you slide the airplane door open and everybody’s fine,” Diaco said. “You’re flying at 40,000 feet, when even just a small, pinhole crack in the window obviously causes a major problem in the cabin. Every little pressure point is going to get attacked, and attacked with talent and ferocity. You have to try to shut it off.”
Not even after junior safety Aaron Williams returned an interception 14 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 17-17 with 10:43 remaining in the third quarter. The Huskers (3-3, 2-1) responded by pinning the Badgers at their 7-yard line following two flags on the ensuing pickoff, and there it was again – a sense of pride, a feeling of belief from a crowd of 89,860 that did its best to will Nebraska to victory.
Wisconsin responded by driving 93 yards for a touchdown, in 10 plays.
“We had the momentum, and that’s when we’ve got to step up and take that next step as a defense,” Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford said, “and it’s frustrating, because we had it right there and we felt like we could take it, and really put our foot down, and we didn’t get it done.
“As a defense, I think we played three pretty good quarters of football, and then for whatever reason, stuff went south a little bit. Physically, I thought we were just as physical as they were, but we’ve just got to be more assignments-on.”
Wisconsin added touchdown drives of 80 yards, in 10 plays, and 40 yards, in 10 plays, following a fumble.
“When they’re running the power play, we lost some force on the edge,” Riley said. “We were getting engulfed, and they were actually making our secondary tackle by bouncing that ball on the corner and actually using the wide receiver to block the safety, and a lot of times, forcing the corner to try to have to tackle.
“So we probably, with our front, need to force that edge and hold that a little bit better than we did, for sure.”
On a bright side for the defense, senior cornerback Chris Jones played his first game of the season after recovering from July knee surgery. He joined fellow senior safety Joshua Kalu, who’d missed the last 3 1/2 games with a sore hamstring. Kalu had 10 tackles and two pass breakups.
“I’m just glad they’re playing,” Diaco said. “They’re seniors, they’ve worked hard, they’ve made an investment. They’ve poured out their heart and soul for the program, and it’s just really nice to see them back playing and doing what they love, for who they love. That’s really heartwarming.”
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