MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin students — some in Halloween costumes — screamed their tonsils out as Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong floated a pass toward wideout Stanley Morgan, who had beaten his man by an inch or two as he streaked toward the end zone.
In that second, as Morgan reached back for the ball, it looked like No. 7 NU might pull off an overtime upset of the No. 11 Badgers and, in the same breath, prove to the Big Ten and the nation: Nebraska’s a major player on the college football stage.
Armstrong’s pass was short and a hair late, and Morgan couldn’t clasp it over two Badger defenders. As Camp Randall Stadium shook and Wisconsin celebrated its 23-17 win, Morgan, despondent, took several minutes to leave the field. So did several Husker players.
But the Huskers’ postgame demeanor was calm and steady. Maybe, many years into the Mike Riley era, a loss like this — in which Nebraska’s offense squandered chances like it was pitching marbles into a sewer drain — won’t feel as hearty. It won’t be a character builder. Saturday night, it felt like one.
NU coaches and players were a little down — but not out. Not yet.
“We played hard, man,” linebacker Josh Banderas said. “We showed what this team can do.”
“We’re a bunch of fighters and I’m proud of how we played tonight,” safety Nate Gerry said.
“Everything I know about our team is confirmed, which is they continue to fight,” Riley said.
Nebraska (7-1 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) overcame a 17-7 deficit and pushed the game into overtime thanks to, once again, owning the fourth quarter. Gerry had two interceptions in the quarter. Armstrong’s passing — anemic-to-awful for most of the game — found a pulse. NU possessed the ball for nearly 10 minutes in that final frame and had 80,833 fans on edge. Wisconsin kicker Alex Endicott even missed a field goal.
“Looked for a while like a pretty typical game of ours,” Riley said.
But Nebraska’s final regulation drive, like so many drives Saturday, started well and ended with a whimper. NU reached its own 49 on two Armstrong passes to Morgan, then stalled. Three Armstrong passes — two of them incomplete — gained nothing. Another fourth quarter drive that started at the Wisconsin 46 — after a Gerry interception — also produced zero points.
So NU scored 10 points on Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) in that fourth quarter but had the potential for many more.
“There were a few times we didn’t capitalize — definitely,” Armstrong said.
In overtime, Nebraska’s defense gave up an 11-yard touchdown to Wisconsin back Dare Ogunbowale — who gashed the Huskers for 120 yards on just 11 carries, often on the same outside sweep play — but caught a break when Endicott pulled the extra point left of the uprights.
“It was a little bit of a reprieve,” said defensive coordinator Mark Banker, who rebuffed the idea that his defense wore down against the Badgers. Riley, in his postgame press conference, had suggested the defense had grown weary.
“Coach is probably being polite,” said Banker, whose defense gave up 234 rushing yards and 337 total yards for the game. “Our guys were good.”
Nebraska’s offense wasn’t up to the overtime challenge. Playing right into the loudest part of the stadium — the raucous student section — NU gained two yards on four plays. The fourth-down play, Riley said, “wasn’t ideal,” but offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, from his perch above the field, believed it would work.
“I thought we had the last play,” Langsdorf said. “I thought Stan popped through there nicely. We had a little bit of a push there. We could have thrown it a hair quicker.”
“Maybe I threw it a little bit late,” Armstrong said.
One play before, on third down, wideout Jordan Westerkamp — who caught three passes for 62 yards after missing the last two games — seemed to draw contact from two Wisconsin players, but referees didn’t throw a flag.
“Looked like something was going on over there where he was impeded,” Riley said.
“It’s a tough call to make,” Westerkamp said. “It really doesn’t matter if I think it was or not. It’s football. Sometimes they get called and sometimes they don’t. There were some things in the game we should have done much better.”
Most of those things fall on the offense.
NU’s special teams were sound enough — the Huskers downed three punts inside the 20 and De’Mornay Pierson-El had 36 punt return yards. And the Nebraska defense, though leaky against the run, forced six punts — including five three-and-outs — and picked off two passes.
For the offense, presumed to be Nebraska’s strength before the season, problems — now a month old — linger.
The Huskers gritted out 152 yards on the ground, but Riley hinted there were more to be had if a few reads had gone differently. Armstrong’s passing was a struggle. He completed 12 of 31 throws for 153 yards. He had two first-half interceptions. Several other passes were batted down.
“Part of our inconsistency is completing some balls,” Langsdorf said. “Whether it’s a guy getting open, whether the protection is long enough, whether the quarterback’s throwing on time. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. But we’re trying some different things to make everybody comfortable and we’ve just got to find that ability to complete some passes when we need them.”
Said Riley: “Tommy played like Tommy. Competed like crazy. Made some plays. Made some plays when we were kind of down and out. He brought us back into it.”
Nebraska did convert nine of its 18 third downs into first downs, but its 4.06-yards-per-play average was the team’s lowest since the last time NU played at Camp Randall in 2014.
Still, this Saturday night was nothing like that loss. Nebraska didn’t wilt under the pressure of the moment — when Wisconsin took a 17-7 lead on a punishing 13-play, 73-yard touchdown drive to open the second half.
“They don’t blink,” Riley said. “They have poise.”
And the looks on players’ faces — so different from two years ago — affirmed that. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said he didn’t know how the national media would perceive the Huskers after this game, and he didn’t care. NU can win the Big Ten West — and the league as a whole — by winning out. The challenge at Ohio State is even larger next week, as the Buckeyes — 24-21 losers at Penn State two weeks ago — are in the same spot Nebraska is.
A knockout game in the Horseshoe awaits. Nebraska’s demeanor suggests it’ll bring a good punch.
“We still control our own destiny,” Rose-Ivey said. “And we plan on keeping it that way.”
|Yards per carry||5.9||3.5|
Nebraska is 4-10 all-time against Wisconsin.
|Fresno State||Sept. 3|
|Ohio State||Nov. 5|
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