LINCOLN — The runway for Scott Frost to turn around Nebraska football is long. The hill to climb — back to dominance, relevance, even a bowl — is high. And Wisconsin? That’s a big rock to move even halfway up the hill without it rolling right back over you.
Let it be known that for nearly half of NU’s 37-21 loss to UW on Saturday, the rock had been pushed. The Huskers were rolling on the ground, the Badgers were reeling just a little, and the turn Frost had wanted from his team — the one he and his bosses, via Saturday’s two-year contract extension, believe is coming soon — seemed in reach.
Wisconsin, being the hammer to Nebraska’s nail, then turned the game in its favor. The method was different —a 55-yard catch-and-run by the Badgers’ lesser-known Taylor — but the effect remained the same. The rock rolled right back on the Huskers. NU’s 493 yards went for naught. So did Dedrick Mills’ career-high 188 rushing yards at 11.1 per carry.
“I’m tired of looking for silver linings, OK?” said Frost, whose team is 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. “Because this team has to decide it’s going to do whatever it takes to change it. And we had opportunities today.”
Eight trips into Wisconsin territory, for one thing.
Nebraska scored on three of them, shooting itself in the foot with a missed field goal, a sack at the wrong time and a decision on key third- and fourth-down plays to sub out Mills and sub in backup Wyatt Mazour, who couldn’t pick up a first down.
For another, Nebraska twice led in the first half, at 7-0 and 14-10, thanks to NU outside linebacker JoJo Domann forcing a fumble on star Badger back Jonathan Taylor and a wide-open, big-play-aplenty game plan that had Wisconsin’s nationally renowned defense on skates.
But the Big Ten West bullies took NU’s best offensive punch in the first half — the Huskers racked up 220 yards, including 151 on the ground — before smothering the noise of 88,842 in Memorial Stadium like a Badger winter blanket.
After the Huskers turned Taylor’s fumble into a snazzy 63-yard touchdown drive replete with a speed option from Martinez and a direct-snap touchdown by Mills, Nebraska kicker Barret Pickering punched the kickoff short into the wind, and Wisconsin’s Aron Cruickshank had an immediate, wide lane in front of him. He ran through it — and a tackle attempt by Pickering — en route to an 89-yard score, sucking the air out of a buzzed crowd.
“You have all the momentum, and you kick a high ball to the whatever yard line it was caught on, and give up a kick return, you just flushed away a chance to be in control of the game,” Frost said.
NU regained momentum, and the 14-10 lead, on a five-play, 73-yard drive — finished off by a Martinez 2-yard run — until Wisconsin (8-2 and 5-2) struck back, again, with a 55-yard touchdown catch-and-run by A.J. Taylor, who bulled and spun his way through shoddy Husker tackling for the score.
“Open-field tackling is not easy,” Domann said.
On Nebraska’s next offensive play, Martinez, with ample time, attempted a short crossing pass to Kanawai Noa while UW inside linebacker Chris Orr, spying him, jumped up to tip the ball. Wisconsin’s Jack Sanborn bagged the treasure. Jonathan Taylor scored a touchdown three plays later for a 24-14 lead.
Frost called the play “unfortunate” — he wished Martinez had thrown the pass sooner or moved in the pocket to get a different throwing angle — but generally praised the play of the sophomore.
“Adrian played like the Adrian we know,” Frost said of Martinez, who threw for 220 yards and rushed for 89.
Said Martinez: “I fought my tail off out there this weekend. I didn’t always make the perfect decision. I had a couple of bonehead plays, but I played my tail off and I was fighting for my teammates.”
Still, in the span of five plays, the Huskers had cut off their own engine, pulled the parking brake and slid back down the hill.
“You’re playing them toe to toe, looking them right in the eye, and matching them blow for blow, then all of a sudden you look up and it’s 24-(14),” Frost said.
Nebraska trailed 27-14 by halftime.
And while NU took all four of its second-half drives into Wisconsin territory, it scored on only one of them, a 23-yard touchdown from Martinez to slot receiver JD Spielman. Nebraska missed a field goal on another and, in search of points to close a double-digit gap, turned the ball over on downs twice.
“They wanted to turn it into a track meet and they did a good job of that, but then we just controlled the situations we could control getting those fourth-down stops,” Badger linebacker Zack Baun said.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s offense chewed clock like it always does, eating up 18 minutes and 40 seconds of the 30 minutes available in the second half. Jonathan Taylor had his third-straight 200-yard rushing game against the Huskers — this time, it was 204 yards and two touchdowns — by repeatedly squirting through the front line of NU’s defense into the secondary.
The Badgers called seven second-half passes, instead dialing up 25 runs that gained 171 yards. NU’s defense — missing starting linemen Carlos Davis and Darrion Daniels due to undisclosed injuries — had to rotate in an assembly line of untested, even redshirting players against the Badgers’ burly line, which latched on and usually didn’t let go. While NU gave up no run longer than 29 yards, and that was to a wide receiver in garbage time, and only allowed Wisconsin to convert 33% of its third downs, Wisconsin’s upfront advantage was clear enough.
“We didn’t let our will be broken, and that’s why I’m proud of my defense and my team,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “We had a lot of naysayers in these two weeks. We could’ve just came here and they could’ve gotten the lead and we could have just broke down like the teams in the past did, and we didn’t.”
Frost was far sharper in his take on the defense.
“It needs to be better,” he said of a unit that has allowed 34, 38, 31 and 37 points in its last four games, all losses. “If we can get to a point where we’re giving up less than 30 a game, I like our chances with where our offense is going, but we’ve got to get there on both sides.”
The second-year coach will get all the time he could want. While Willie Taggart and Chad Morris were getting fired in their second years at Florida State and Arkansas, Frost has the full support of all involved. He talked again Saturday, as he has for weeks, of needing more players, more desire, more commitment, more conviction. He told his players no one will give them anything in life, or in football, and they’ll have to snatch it away from opponents. Until they do, the Huskers live in a kind of purgatory where they feel “miles away” and “this close” at the same time.
“People in Nebraska know me pretty well,” Frost said. “I’m a fighter, and I’m not going to quit until this is right. We took the Nebraska job as a staff because we figured we’d have the runway to build this and build it the right way.”
The runway is long. The hill is high. Wisconsin is the rock that keeps rolling back on Nebraska. For the seventh straight time.
|Yards per carry||7.1||7.4|
Nebraska is 4-10 all-time against Wisconsin.
|South Alabama||Aug. 31|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 14|
|Ohio State||Sept. 28|
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