LINCOLN — Needing to limit mistakes in order to have an opportunity to upset No. 15-ranked Wisconsin, Nebraska was haunted by breakdowns in all phases of the game during Saturday’s 37-21 Big Ten Conference loss to the Badgers at Memorial Stadium.
The Cornhuskers (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) outgained Wisconsin 493-482 in total offense, but had enough miscues for the two-touchdown favorite Badgers to win their seventh straight in the series. Nebraska came away with points on half of its four red-zone chances, including missing a 41-yard field-goal attempt, had a tipped-ball interception that led to a TD and also allowed an 89-yard kickoff return for a score, sapping the momentum from NU’s 7-0 first-quarter lead.
“We’ve got to get better in all three phases — special teams is especially one of them,” said Nebraska coach Scott Frost, who received a two-year contract extension that was announced just hours before kickoff. “Against a team like that, if you’re going to upset (them), when you get your chances, you have to take advantage of them.”
Hampered by the absence of starting defensive linemen Carlos Davis and Darrion Daniels due to injuries, Nebraska’s defense once again struggled to stop Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing attack. The Badgers (8-2, 5-2) ground out 320 yards (7.1 yards per carry) with star running back Jonathan Taylor carrying 25 times for 204 yards and two TDs.
It marked the third consecutive season that Taylor has topped the 200-yard mark in rushing against the Huskers. The 5-foot-11, 219-pound junior from Salem, New Jersey, previously gained 249 yards rushing against Nebraska in 2017 and 221 in 2018.
Asked if Nebraska’s defense has shown the kind of improvement he’d like to see by this point in the season, Frost didn’t mince words.
“If it would, we wouldn’t be where we are as a team with our record,” Frost said. “There are good things happening — we need more pieces. We were short some pieces today that weren’t healthy (and) weren’t out there.
“There are some other things I think we need to fix as a staff. So, it’s on all of us. It needs to be better. If we can get to a point where we’re giving up less than 30 a game, I like our chances with where our offense is going, but we’ve got to get there on both sides.”
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said Aron Cruickshank’s 89-yard kickoff return for a TD after the Huskers had taken a 7-0 lead was “huge.”
“Football is a game of momentum and anytime that you can answer a score, there’s a feeling to it,” Chryst said. “You love to match a touchdown with a touchdown.”
The highlight for Nebraska was a breakout performance by running back Dedrick Mills. With fellow running back Wan’Dale Robinson sidelined by an injury, Mills rushed 17 times for a career-high 188 yards, including a 12-yard TD run after taking a direct snap to give the Huskers a 7-0 lead with 5:27 left in the first quarter.
NU was able to move the ball well at times with quarterback Adrian Martinez completing 13 of 23 pass attempts for 220 yards with a TD and an interception. The sophomore had 123 rushing yards gained, but four sacks reduced his net to 89 yards.
The Huskers rushed for 273 yards against a Wisconsin defense that was ranked 16th nationally, allowing an average of 84.4 yards on the ground per game.
“I was happy with how the offense played,” Frost said. “That’s a really good defense we played today, and we knew we weren’t going to get that many snaps.
“(We) came up a little short on a couple of fourth downs, made a couple mistakes, (but) for the most part, I thought those guys fought.”
Nebraska took a 14-10 lead on Martinez’s 2-yard TD run with 9:32 remaining in the second quarter. However, the Badgers responded with a 55-yard scoring pass to A.J. Taylor from Jack Coan on a play where Taylor made the catch over the middle and spun away from would-be tacklers before racing in for the TD to put Wisconsin ahead 17-14.
On the Huskers’ next offensive play, Martinez’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn, who returned it 11 yards to the Nebraska 21-yard line. That set up a 1-yard TD run for Taylor and the Badgers led 24-14 with 5:03 left before halftime.
Colin Larsh added a 24-yard field goal with 11 seconds left and Wisconsin took a 27-14 lead into the intermission.
“If you’re ahead of a team like (Wisconsin), good things are going to happen,” Frost said of Nebraska surrendering its early leads. “You put them in a game they don’t want to be in. We had chances to be ahead in the game. We were.
“You’re playing them toe to toe, looking them right in the eye and matching them blow for blow. Then, all of a sudden, you look up and it’s (24-14), but that’s where a good team goes out and makes it happen and I need to keep working to get our team to a point where they believe it and go out and make it happen because we had chances today.”
Trailing 27-14, Nebraska’s defense forced a three-and-out to open the third quarter and the Huskers quickly moved to the Wisconsin 24 after Martinez completions of 12 yards to JD Spielman and 21 yards to Kanawai Noa. However, Martinez was sacked for a 20-yard loss on the next play and the Huskers wound up missing a 41-yard field-goal attempt by Barret Pickering.
Down 16 points late, Nebraska still had life when Martinez connected with Noa on a 36-yard pass to the Wisconsin 5. However, a fourth-and-goal pass from the 4 to running back Wyatt Mazour came up a yard short and the Badgers took over at their 1 with 2:11 to play and were able to run out the clock.
“I didn’t always make the perfect decision,” Martinez said. “I had a couple of bonehead plays, but I played my tail off and I was fighting for my teammates. It felt like I was getting back to myself out there.”
Despite Martinez’s interception and four sacks, Frost said he wanted to focus on the positive plays his sophomore quarterback made against the Badgers.
“Adrian played like the Adrian we know,” said Frost, who was Nebraska’s starting quarterback during the 1996 and 1997 seasons. “That kid has gone through a lot through our struggles. I went through it, when we were 11-2 and I was the most hated guy in the state of Nebraska.
“It’s hard. He’s been battling like a warrior. He hasn’t been 100% for a lot of this year. We’re not good enough around him yet.”
Martinez acknowledged that he’s heard the criticism from media and fans as his performance hasn’t always lived up to lofty preseason expectations.
“I would be lying to you if I told you it was easy,” Martinez said. “It is tough seeing some of the things and hearing this or that, but I have my family, I have my teammates, and more importantly these coaches who believe in me. I am more than thankful for that.
“I have been working as hard as I can to get us where we need to be. I’m going to continue to do that and try and play my best to give this team the best chance to win.”
With their fourth consecutive loss, the Huskers need victories in their final two games to reach bowl eligibility. Nebraska plays at Maryland next Saturday and closes its regular season Nov. 29 at home against Iowa.
“I hope they understand their backs (are) against the wall,” Frost said. “But I want a team that plays like their back is against the wall in every single game.”