MADISON, Wis. — Battered and bruised for more than 56 minutes but still giving more than it was taking, Nebraska was stabbed in the heart with a 77-yard touchdown pass in the last 3:29 Saturday to give resurgent Wisconsin a 21-20 upset victory.
After Greg Bohlig's dramatic pitch to flanker Jeff Mack, Vince Lamia's ensuing extra point kick and the final moments were played out, the Camp Randall Stadium crowd of 73,381 started the wildest celebration on the field since 1969 when a win over Iowa ended a 23-game winless streak.
The Badger band was even denied its post-game preening for regional TV.
The downfall for the No. 4-ranked Cornhuskers seemed almost predestined. After a near flawless 61-7 opening triumph over Oregon, the Huskers were struck by a series of injuries and misplays that set the tone for the Bohlig-Mack conclusion.
"It was like playing Missouri," said Nebraska trainer Paul Schneider, as he treated an uncommon number of hurts in the solemn locker room afterward. "They just came out and hit. There are a lot bumps and bruises."
Quarterback Dave Humm, who had passed for 297 yards against the Badgers the year before, was out after little more than a quarter with a hip injury. The Huskers netted only 47 aerial yards Saturday.
I-back John O'Leary received a cracked jaw and several broken teeth just before the half, but he came back to play. So did defensive end Bob Martin, who had a sprained ankle in the first quarter, and fullback Tony Davis, whose knee was swelling.
But the other end, Tom Pate, never returned after he was knocked out early in the second period.
The Husker injuries, of course, hurt more than those in the Badger quarters, where joy was unbridled.
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne had the task of trying to pull his players' chins out of their shoes before he opened the doors to the press and consoling followers.
"I told them they had hit hard, and they had just made some mistakes (four fumbles — two lost — an interception, three penalties). They are a good team, and they will be a good team," Osborne said.
"I just hope the players don't give up now. They're all hard when you lose. But we can still win the Big Eight.
"I'm not alibing, but the injuries hurt us. But that's football. Breaks and turnovers are part of it."
In replaying the final minutes, Osborne said he ordered a 22-yard Mike Coyle field goal just before Wisconsin's final touchdown because he was trying to prevent a possible tying field goal by the Badgers.
The Huskers had driven to a first down on the Wisconsin two-yard line, but were back on the four on fourth down. Coyle's kick made it 20-14 with 4:21 left.
When a writer noted that Nebraska would have been in good field position even if it had come up short on a touchdown try, Osborne replied: "On that play (Bohlig's pass), it wouldn't have mattered if it was 94 or 104 yards. I believe that was the first long touchdown pass on us in two years.
"Our safety (George Kyros) went for the interception. It was all over when they caught the ball."
Kyros, who was also called for pass interference on the play, took a stab at the ball, and it appeared he would have had it if he had been 5-10 instead of 5-9. The Grand Island senior said later in an apologetic voice: "I'd rather not talk about it."
"It wasn't George's fault," said Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin. "It was the team's fault. We should have had a better pass rush.
"We don't want to single out anyone. All the coaches and players take the blame. This is about as sick as I've ever been after a game. This is such a great bunch of kids, but once it (adversity) starts, it kind of snowballs.
"But I'm as proud of them as I was last week. I'm not going to second-guess the players. Now they have a chance to prove what kind of men we have."
Statistically, the game was as close as the final score, with Wisconsin outyarding the Huskers, 219-305. But it was a reversal of the previous year when Nebraska was superior in passing and Wisconsin got the better of the ground war.
Bohlig who made Badger Coach John Jardine swallow his words when he said the Eau Claire senior would never make it two years ago, harried the Husker secondary for 242 yards with 14 completions in 21 attempts.
But all-star tailback Billy Marek was held to 51 yards on 21 carries and the Badgers totaled 77 yards over the Tartan Turf.
O'Leary's 88 yards on 17 carries, Davis' 76 on 14 and Donnie Westbrook's 48 on six led Nebraska's solid rushing that accounted for 258 yards.
Husker defensive tackle Ron Pruitt acknowledged that the line battling was "pretty tough. We gave up a few yards on the ground, but they burned us on the short passes. The rollouts hurt us the most."
"It looks like Wisconsin will win some games this year. We just have to bounce back. I'm just glad it wasn't a league game."
The first bad omen for the Huskers came on the initial series of the game when Humm passed on third down to Westbrook for an apparent first down, but the senior wingback dropped the ball.
The Badgers came out snorting with their first drive that carried to the Nebraska 24 as Bohlig completed his first three passes before Kyros stopped it with a fumble recovery.
Then, playing as they had the previous week, the Huskers ripped off 78 yards on nine plays, and Westbrook repeated his Oregon performance by getting the first touchdown from 23 yards on a counter trap play.
On the next N.U. series, it happened. Humm ran the option play and took a helmet in his right hip. It stiffened up, and he took himself out two plays later.
After treatment, the offensive captain tried it for two more Husker possessions before giving it up.
"I just couldn't throw. I couldn't step into the throw or put anything on it," Humm said. He finished with two completions in six attempts.
Earl Everett, who finished up, completed three of seven for 27 yards and had one intercepted — Steve Wagner's theft that ended Nebraska final challenge with 2:40 left.
With the loss of Humm, Nebraska's offensive emphasis was placed squarely on the running game. O'Leary was needed, or he wouldn't have played.
He was taken to a hospital for X-rays at the half after he was kicked in the face in the second quarter. The film showed his jaw was fractured, O'Leary said, but it wasn't a bad break.
"It happened four plays before the half," O'Leary said. That came just after John Starkebaum recovered a Marek fumble at the Wisconsin 23.
O'Leary, broken jaw and all, scored the go-ahead touchdown with a six-yard sweep 20 seconds before halftime after the Badgers had tied the score earlier on Bohlig's nine-yard scoring pass to Jack Novak.
"I asked if I could play after the half, and the doctors told the coaches to only use me if they needed to. I guess they did."
Nebraska appeared to have the game in control after Coyle's 30-yard field goal early in the third quarter. The Husker defense stymied three straight Wisconsin series without a first down, and Kyros intercepted a Bohlig pass.
But Wisconsin linebacker Rick Jakious, a Husker nemesis throughout, made perhaps his most significant stop of the day after the Huskers had driven to the Wisconsin 27. On fourth down with a yard to go, Jakious delivered the heaviest blow that stopped Everett short on a quarterback sneak.
As if inspired, Bohlig drove his team 69 yards on nine plays, including passes of 28 and 18 yards to the ever-present Mack. Marek leaped over a pile of players for the one-yard touchdown.
Osborne's field goal decision and the Bohlig-Mack heroics followed.
"It was just a combination of Wisconsin having a real fine football team and our making mistakes early," O'Leary summarized.
"If you get a team down early when you're favored like that, a lot of times they'll fold. But when you're having problems, it can give the other team momentum. When they get thinking about an upset, they get stronger and stronger."
The loss was Nebraska's first to a Big Ten Conference team since 1962 after 13 victories. The Huskers will have to regroup before attempting to start another string next Saturday when Big Ten foe Northwestern visits Lincoln.
Wisconsin, now 2-0, will travel to Colorado seeking another Big Eight scalp.
|Yards per carry||1.7||4.2|
Nebraska is 4-9 all-time against Wisconsin.
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 26|
|Iowa State||Nov. 9|
|Kansas State||Nov. 16|
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