MADISON, Wis. — Good. Bad. Worse. Ugly. Insulting.
At rock bottom of Nebraska’s 59-24 loss at Wisconsin, a snow-glittering dance party broke out in front of a football team beaten into historic submission by the Badgers and one Melvin Gordon. The home team vacated its sideline and ran toward the student section to strut and scream during the “Jump Around” rap song. Camp Randall Stadium shook and hummed.
The Husker program, in the form of players and coaches trying to ignore it all, seemed swallowed whole in the scene. A November shame, in Nebraska’s new House of Pain, against Badgers who live rent-free in the hearts and minds of NU coaches and players, since a fortnight’s worth of prep didn’t do a cat’s lick of good once Gordon got rolling.
The Badger back ran for an FBS record 408 yards — plus four touchdowns — by the end of the third quarter. He accepted hugs and cheers, danced to the song, then sat for the final 15 interminable minutes. Snow fell. Husker gloom mounted.
The No. 20 Badgers took control of the West Division by scoring 56 straight points, outgaining No. 16 NU 627-180, effortlessly erasing a 17-3 Husker lead. Among his 25 carries, Gordon had runs of 42, 62, 39, 44, 43, 68 and 26 yards. That 62-yarder — a touchdown in which he hurdled Husker safety Corey Cooper without losing stride — was the Badgers’ first touchdown of the game.
“It seemed like the gates opened after that, and I don’t have an answer as to why,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
“We kind of got in a rut,” left guard Jake Cotton said.
“When it flipped, it flipped,” coach Bo Pelini said. “Somewhere along the way, it was like our guys totally lost their confidence.”
And any sense of execution. Defenders didn’t get off Wisconsin blocks, Pelini said, and tackling was “atrocious.” The same diet of power and sweep plays that pummeled Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten title game worked again — for 581 rushing yards and 11 yards a carry.
Wisconsin’s running game uniquely stresses Pelini’s run defense with power schemes that force linebackers and defensive backs to make tackles in the open field. Gordon’s speed makes it doubly hard to adjust.
“It’s well-designed what they do,” Pelini said. “Certain particular guys, when you’re called upon, you’d better make your play. That didn’t happen.” Instead, runs that should have been eight or 10 yards, Pelini said, “ended up being 40 or 50” yards. When Nebraska attempted to get more aggressive and use “pressures” outside of its base defense to stop the run, Pelini said, the execution of them was “awful.”
So was Nebraska’s offense, which flat-lined after field position-aided touchdown drives of 43 and 30 yards in the first half. Whatever hope the Huskers (8-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten) had going into the second half — they trailed just 24-17 — was quickly doused by the offense’s incompetence. Nebraska ran 25 plays in the second half for 65 yards, committing four turnovers. One of those 25 plays, a 26-yard screen pass from quarterback Tommy Armstrong to Ameer Abdullah, was Nebraska’s biggest gain of the day. Armstrong followed it with his most baffling decision.
From midfield, Armstrong rolled out, evaded one pass rusher and heaved a ball toward the Wisconsin goal line, overthrowing wideout Kenny Bell so far that Badger safety Peniel Jean caught the ball, like a punt, at his own 3.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Armstrong, who completed 6 of 18 passes for 62 yards and took four sacks, didn’t see Jean patrolling behind the play.
“When he was scrambling out, he goes, ‘All I saw was Kenny,’” Beck said.
“Bad decision,” Pelini said.
Nebraska’s defense held, though, and NU started its next drive at the Wisconsin 38. First play: Abdullah met Badger linebacker Vince Biegel four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Biegel grabbed at the ball and ripped it out. Wisconsin recovered.
“You try to just get back to the basics,” Beck said. “OK, hey, let’s just run a simple run play. Guys know (the play). We cut a (defender) loose, Ameer gets hit, we fumble. I’m like, oh my gosh, we can’t get any simpler than that. I don’t have the answer why, early, we blocked them and later we don’t block them. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Gordon scored four plays later for a 31-17 lead.
“Morale was fine at halftime,” Pelini said. “That third quarter didn’t help.”
» After that Gordon touchdown, Nebraska had a three-and-out, punted, and Wisconsin (8-2 and 5-1) scored two plays later on two Gordon runs.
» Nebraska then gained 14 yards in five plays, punted, and Wisconsin scored another touchdown six plays later.
» Armstrong fumbled on the second play of the next drive. Gordon ran 26 yards for his final touchdown to end the third quarter and secure the record from LaDainian Tomlinson, who previously held it with 406 yards.
“I didn’t even know I was close to a record like that,” Gordon said of his final historic carry. “I was kind of just running to win.”
He did that. The Huskers were left explaining how this could happen — again.
Well, a few Huskers anyway. Pelini, Papuchis and Beck talked, along with three players — Cotton, punter Sam Foltz and cornerback Josh Mitchell.
Foltz had Nebraska’s second-best offensive play with a 14-yard fake punt run. Cotton was a captain. Mitchell talked to The World-Herald as he walked to the team bus parked outside the stadium.
“We practiced everything that they gave us,” Mitchell said. “We just got to make plays.”
Abdullah, defensive end Randy Gregory, linebacker David Santos and safety Nate Gerry declined interviews from The World-Herald. Armstrong, according to a Nebraska spokesman, declined, as well.
“Not tonight, sorry,” Santos said.
“I don’t want to talk,” Abdullah said. He wasn’t able to connect with his friend, Gordon, after the game.
Gordon was busy hoisting the Freedom Trophy, which appeared too heavy to easily lift. Later, a few Badger players made snow angels on the turf. Unless Wisconsin loses to both Iowa and Minnesota — and Nebraska beats both — the Huskers won’t be playing for the Big Ten championship.
But Nebraska has more immediate concerns. Senior Day is six days away, and visiting Minnesota beat the Huskers 34-23 last year. The Gophers will, no doubt, watch the Wisconsin film. Nebraska will, too.
How will it respond?
“Our approach won’t change, our attitude won’t change,” Cotton said. “For us, we play for each other in our room. We play for our coaches.”
Said Papuchis: “A lot of who we are as a program — coaches and players — is going to be revealed when we play against Minnesota.”
Another big loss in a big game was a revelation all its own.
|Yards per carry||11.0||2.6|
Nebraska is 4-8 all-time against Wisconsin.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
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