LINCOLN, Neb.—The Badgers struggled in short-yardage situations throughout the non-conference season. Saturday night, against No. 22 Nebraska (1-0 Big Ten, 4-1 overall), it cost Wisconsin a chance to win its Big Ten opener.
Faced with a fourth-and-one on its own 49-yard line after having a first-down spot overturned by instant replay, senior running back Montee Ball (32 carries, 90 yards, 3 TDs) and redshirt junior quarterback Danny O’Brien muffed a handoff Ball did not expect to get. It served as the culmination of a long, steady comeback for Nebraska, which trailed 27-10 early in the third quarter, only to score the game’s final 20 points and top Wisconsin (0-1, 3-2) 30-27 in front of 85,962 at Memorial Stadium.
On the critical fourth-down play, a miscommunication between Ball and O’Brien, who entered the game in place of redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave for Wisconsin’s final drive, cost the Badgers. O’Brien said the play was designed for him to make a decision at the line of scrimmage. Either he handed to Ball on the right side, or kept the ball on a naked bootleg back to the left. Ball thought the bootleg was automatic and that there was no chance he was getting the ball.
“I wasn’t expecting the ball at all, I was selling the fake,” Ball said. “I didn’t even know the ball was behind me.”
O’Brien said his read was to hand the ball off because Nebraska, which had been overloading the right side when the Badgers motioned to the right, kept two defenders to the left, making a bootleg unlikely to succeed.
“Had I known—it happens within two seconds, but had I known [Ball] didn’t know he was going to get the ball, I would have called timeout,” O’Brien said. “I told him any time that kind of stuff happens it’s 100 percent on the quarterback. That’s what you sign up for when you play quarterback.”
Through the first 35 minutes, it did not appear Wisconsin would need any sort of late-game magic to leave Lincoln with a victory.
The Badgers led 20-10 at the half on the strength of 161 yards through the air and a touchdown from Stave. He completed nine of his 14 first-half attempts and found redshirt junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (7 receptions, 142 yards, TD) for a 29-yard score early in the second quarter.
Stave’s production through the air also included a 54-yard strike to Abbrederis and a 30-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Chase Hammond.
When junior defensive end David Gilbert forced a fumble on Nebraska’s first second-half possession and Wisconsin turned it into a touchdown four plays later, the Badgers looked to be in control.
Then Nebraska ran wild.
Despite being held to just 68 rushing yards in the first half, the Cornhuskers finished the night with 259 yards on 46 carries (5.6 yards per carry). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez was especially deadly in the second half and finished with 107 yards on the ground, including a 38-yard touchdown scamper midway through the third quarter.
“Obviously [Nebraska’s] quarterback can run and that’s kind of what they did (in the second half),” redshirt senior linebacker Mike Taylor said. “We dropped out in pass coverage and you can scramble and get some big plays. It was just a matter of time before they tried to use [Martinez] more and they used him well tonight.”
While the Nebraska offense ramped up in the second half, the Wisconsin attack stalled. The Badgers managed just 90 yards in the final 30 minutes, 36 of which came on the ill-fated final drive. Ball mustered 31 second-half yards and was stopped for two yards or less on nine of 15 attempts.
“We just have to make sure we prepare for a four-quarter game,” Ball said. “It seemed like we let off the gas.”
The Badgers had two sustained scoring drives—the opening 5-play, 71-yarder and a 10-play, 65-yard march in the second quarter—but also had two short scoring drives following Nebraska turnovers. Wisconsin’s only other sustained drive came up empty when freshman kicker Jack Russell missed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Russell also missed the extra point on Wisconsin’s third score, and the significance of those four points was not lost on Bielema.
“The kicking game has been a little bit up-and-down,” Bielema said. “At times, both of them show really, really good things and it’s made it difficult where to go and what to go with.”