It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.
– John Cleese as Brian Stimpson, Clockwise
Once again, Nebraska loses a heartbreaker, beaten by Wisconsin 23-21 on a 45-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglione with 0:04 seconds remaining in the game. To its credit, Nebraska fought hard, answering the bell time and time again. But as NFL great Bill Parcells said, you are what your record says you are, and right now that’s 2-4 overall and 0-2 in B1G play. So for Nebraska against Wisconsin …
Retro Nebraska. With 6:17 left in the game, Nebraska faced a third-and-one at its own 45, down 20-14. The crown in Memorial Stadium was flat, feeling like they had seen this movie before.
(Spoiler alert: They had, in fact, seen the movie before, and knew how it ended)
Nebraska then motioned into an I formation, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong gave the ball to fullback Andy Janovich. He broke tackles and steamed his way to the end zone, breathing life and hope into the Sea of Red.
And as we’ve learned this season, it’s the hope that gets you.
Receiver’s Grabs. Two catches for Nebraska were worth noting. At the end of the first half, Armstrong took a shot deep for Alonzo Moore. Moore was one-on-one with the Wisconsin cornerback, and had to make the touchdown grab around the defender. He made the play, even with an interference call, and put Nebraska in front as the half expired.
But to set up that touchdown, Nebraska needed to convert a third-and-four from the Nebraska 44. Armstrong floated a pass to Stanley Morgan, who made a one-handed grab to convert the first down and put Nebraska in position to score before the end of the half.
Defensive Standouts. Yes, there were Blackshirts that played well against Wisconsin. Chris Weber, a walk-on linebacker pressed into service due to injury, had seven tackles and a quarterback hurry. More importantly, though, Weber’s presence helped stifle Wisconsin’s rushing attack.
Cornerback Joshua Kalu had nine tackles and four pass breakups, and spent most of the game in single coverage against Wisconsin’s Alex Erickson. And linebacker Marcus Newby had four tackles, one tackle for loss, and four pass breakups playing a role somewhere between a linebacker and a free safety.
Dodging a Bullet. Yeah, I know it’s a fourth good. But Nebraska and Wisconsin play for the ridiculous, anodyne and focus-group-created Freedom Trophy. So by winning the game, that means Bucky has to take this monstrosity home with him.
Getting Beat Twice. Against Illinois last week, Nebraska had a chance to salt the game away, but Armstrong threw an incomplete pass, stopping the clock and giving the Illini an opportunity for a game-winning drive. Head coach Mike Riley took tremendous heat for that play call in the week to follow.
Fast forward one week, when Nebraska had a 21-20 lead with 1:24 remaining. Wisconsin had three time outs, and Nebraska ran three straight plays with Imani Cross into the teeth of, basically, the entire Wisconsin defense. The Badgers ended up getting the ball back at their own 30 with 1:03 left needing only a field goal to win.
So, here’s the thing. One of those three plays – probably second down – was crying out for a play-action pass to draw in the Wisconsin defenders bunched in the middle, letting Armstrong booting out with a run-pass option, likely either open or with single coverage.
One first down for Nebraska wins the game. There was almost no chance to get that first down running straight into the teeth of Wisconsin’s defense with a bruiser like Cross. And given Nebraska’s history this season (and how long the defense had been on the field), it was both unfair and unreasonable to ask the defense to make a stop.
But given what happened on third-and-seven against Illinois, it’s hard not to think Riley didn’t play it safe wanting to avoid a repeat of what happened in Champaign. Unfortunately for Nebraska, playing it safe was exactly the wrong decision in this scenario.
Yellow Rain. A smart and particularly handsome analyst pointed out this would be a regular feature of this column, and it was a huge issue against Wisconsin. Nebraska had nine penalties for 89 yards, right on track with its performance this season. Yes some of the penalties were … soft, and 15 of those yards were on an unsportsmanlike conduct call against Mike Riley.
But, still, penalty yardage makes a difference. And when you consider the razor-thin margin between 6-0 and 2-4 for Nebraska this year, those penalty yards could be the difference.
Lack of Pass Rush. Yeah, Joel Stave had 322 yards of passing against Nebraska, and there’s plenty of questions to ask about the secondary. But part of the reason for Stave’s success was an almost total absence of a pass rush. The absence of defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun was keenly felt, as Ross Dzuris and Jack Gangwish simply lack the ability to apply pressure from the edge.
And the Tragic Inevitability
In calling a game for Monday Night Football, Tony Kornheiser referred to a comeback by the New England Patriots as “tragic inevitability” as the Ravens surrendered a lead to Tom Brady.
At this point, that’s what it feels like for Nebraska. Be honest, Husker Fan, once Wisconsin took the ball with a minute left, you thought something like this:
There’s plenty to like about how Nebraska kept playing hard and fighting back. But these are college kids who have put their blood, sweat, and tears for months into this team … and have gotten a 2-4 start out of it. At some point, there very well could be an F-it moment for players on this team. Unless something good happens soon – and a trip to Minneapolis to face a feisty Gophers squad is not ideal to find that – that F-it moment could be on the horizon.