When things have looked dire for the 2022 Badgers, they’ve invariably lost. A late fumble versus Washington State, leaky pass coverage at Michigan State and special teams domination by Iowa caused Wisconsin to lose each of its three most closely contested games.
So when Nebraska took a 14-3 lead at the end of Saturday’s third quarter, Wisconsin seemed certain to lose its second straight game and sixth overall. In fact, the game felt more like the blowout losses to Ohio State and Illinois than it did those more competitive contests.
The Badgers, having dealt with the loss of former teammate Devin Chandler, a pair of backtracked commitments and, in-game, the ejection of defensive leader Nick Herbig, flipped the script with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Graham Mertz’s last-minute quarterback sneak gave Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4) a 15-14 lead to defeat Nebraska (3-8, 2-6) and secure the Badgers’ eligibility for a bowl game this postseason.
Bowl eligibility is a low bar for a Wisconsin team which entered 2022 with high expectations. That said, after all that happened this week, Saturday’s victory was a joyous occasion for Jim Leonhard’s group.
Wisconsin’s miserable first half consisted of four possessions: punt, punt, interception and missed field goal.
On the pick, Mertz underthrew a deep ball by about 10 yards and hit defensive back Malcolm Hartzog in the chest. The strong wind was surely a factor, but it was still an unwise throw for Mertz to attempt on the run.
Nebraska punished the mistake with a touchdown. Trey Palmer’s 11-yard catch capped off an eight-play, 37-yard scoring drive and gave the Cornhuskers a 7-0 lead.
A promising Wisconsin possession stalled at the 21-yard line before Nate Van Zelst, kicking into the wind, came up short on a 39-yard attempt to end the half.
Mertz had completed 4/10 passes for 19 yards and the interception through two quarters, connecting with Dean Engram, Keontez Lewis and Jack Eschenbach rather than his top targets, receivers Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell. The passing game was clearly still out of sync after a poor showing in Iowa.
The Badgers drove 79 yards to the Nebraska 1 on their second possession of the third quarter. Fullback Jackson Acker’s inexcusable false start on third-and-goal forced a chip-shot field goal which Van Zelst made to get Wisconsin on the board.
Linebacker Nick Herbig was ejected for targeting on the next series. He may have gotten unlucky, as it looked like he was trying to spin away from contact. No matter, Herbig’s shoulder made firm, late contact with the head of sliding quarterback Casey Thompson. Wisconsin’s most impactful pass rusher will miss the first half of next week’s game against Minnesota.
The 15-yard penalty extended Nebraska’s possession, which resulted in another Palmer touchdown. Uncovered, one of the Big Ten’s best receivers had an easy catch to make it 14-3.
Palmer tweeted “I woke up pissed off!” on Saturday and was the Cornhuskers’ best player on offense. He finished with four catches, 47 yards and two touchdowns.
A steady dose of Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi helped Wisconsin drive to the red zone and, with 10 minutes left, Mertz threw a missile to Bell for a 10-yard touchdown.
Following a sequence of punts, Wisconsin got the ball at midfield with three minutes to erase a five-point deficit. With Allen unavailable due to an apparent leg injury and likely other injuries, Isaac Guerendo led the Badgers down the field. He gained 16 yards on three straight runs before diving for a 27-yard catch at Nebraska’s five-yard line.
The ESPN broadcast team suggested Guerendo could have caught Mertz’s pass on the run and scored, but as a running back used sparingly in the passing game, Guerendo did well to secure the catch.
Two plays later, on third-and-goal from the two-yard line with 35 seconds to go, Mertz leaked across the goal line on a long quarterback sneak.
Wisconsin failed on its two-point try, with Mertz absorbing a crushing hit to the head on his dive for the goal line. It proved meaningless, though, as Nebraska got nowhere close to field goal range before time expired.
While Mertz’s final numbers — 8-of-18 for 83 yards — were hardly pretty, he made enough big throws when it mattered most.
Wisconsin’s ground game fared as well as expected versus the porous Nebraska front seven. Allen had 18 carries for 92 yards despite looking uncomfortable all afternoon.
Mellusi impressed in his first action since Oct. 8. Back from wrist surgery, the senior ran for 98 yards on 21 attempts. His legs looked fresh after the long hiatus, and he was the key to overcoming Allen’s intermittent absences. In total, the Badgers ran for 235 yards and 4.5 per carry.
Wisconsin’s defense dominated once again, holding the Cornhuskers to 171 total yards. With the exception of Trey Palmer in the red zone, the secondary covered well. Nebraska couldn’t get anything going on the ground as they averaged 2.2 yards per carry.
Jim Leonhard’s unit has allowed 167 total yards per game over the last three weeks. Early-season inconsistencies aside, the defense has enjoyed a great 2022 after losing several starters from a year ago.
Linebacker Darryl Peterson recorded his first career sack. The redshirt freshman should play more snaps next week, especially during Herbig’s first-half absence.
Saturday’s game meant little in the grand scheme of college football, but for the Badgers it might as well have been the Rose Bowl — weather notwithstanding, of course. Players posed giddily with the Freedom Trophy, given to the winner of Wisconsin and Nebraska’s annual showdown. Skyler Bell danced on a table in the locker room.
Mertz credited his teammates for overcoming a tough week off the field and finding a way to win.
“There’s so many different things that have happened to us this year that could easily have buried us and made us just fold,” he said. “It’s really cool how guys come together and want to succeed together.”
“This game was for Devin [Chandler],” Bell said. “His passing… it’s just tough. We all knew that we had to win this game for him.”
The comeback may have secured a full-time head coaching position for Leonhard. The university must keep its official job posting open for at least seven days before announcing any hiring. That posting went online Saturday, suggesting a looming announcement about the next head coach.
Wisconsin will play in a bowl game for the 21st consecutive season. Granted, it will be an obscure one — and it may take place on a weekday morning or some other unfavorable time — but the Badgers will be there.
The Badgers conclude their 2022 schedule next Saturday at home versus Minnesota with Paul Bunyan’s Axe on the line. The Daily Cardinal’s website and @cardinal_sports on Twitter will have our usual coverage leading up the game.