Problem was the intensity that Wisconsin unleashed on Nebraska in the first half was reciprocated by the Huskers after halftime, and the Badgers did not respond.
Getting into the heavyweight slugfest after halftime, the Cornhuskers, thanks in large part to junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, erased a 10-point halftime deficit to score 20 unanswered points in a 30-27 victory over Wisconsin Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
It was a complete reversal from last year's matchup when Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) failed to compete in the second half, as the Cornhuskers outgained Wisconsin 317-to-90 in the second half and held the Badgers' once vaunted running game to only 59 rushing yards.
"First off give a lot of credit to Nebraska," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "This is a very good environment here in the world of college football. They played very well in the second half. I thought our guys came out in the second half and embraced the challenge. A lot of really good things came in at halftime…Obviously it was a tale of two halves."
After junior defensive end David Gilbert caused a second Huskers fumble on their first drive of the second half, knocking the ball out of Taylor Martinez's hand with Chris Borland recovering his second fumble of the game, everything seemed to be working for the offense.
Wisconsin capitalized with Ball's 65th career touchdown, pushing its lead for a second time to 17 points. However that would be the last time Wisconsin would have a full embrace of the momentum it created.
Martinez started the comeback with a 38-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, cutting the lead to 27-17, one play after safety Michael Trotter was whistled for a 15-yard personal foul that added to a 20-yard reception.
"The killer was the long pass down the sidelines and then they tacked on 15 for a helmet hit supposedly," Bielema said. "We just weren't able to get ourselves in positive situations in the second half on defense. I thought our offense [in the] second half really never seemed to get in a rhythm. We didn't really establish anything inside running the football."
Martinez accounted for 288 yards of total offense – 171 in the second half – and three touchdowns three days after Gilbert made headlines criticizing the quarterback's toughness.
"Obviously, their quarterback can run, and that's what they did," senior Mike Taylor said. "We dropped back in pass coverage and he scrambled for some big plays. We knew he could run, obviously. It was just a matter of time before they tried to use him more, and they used him well tonight."
Added Bielema: "First off they did a nice job. We came up with a plan that we were able to try and keep them inside. But they had two huge quarterback runs that split our defensive tackle and end. Both of those were big gains that gave them momentum."
Wisconsin's defense looked to be wearing down as Nebraska ripped off long runs. In addition to Martinez, Rex Burkhead (18 carries. 87 yards, receiving touchdown) and Ameer Abdullah (10 carries, 70 yards) had bigger holes than in the first half because of missed tackles and good option-run fakes that fooled the linebackers.
"Early on the reason why we got stopped was because we couldn't establish a rhythm," said Martinez, who averaged 8.2 yards per carry. "I think once we established that then we really had them."
That was evident with Nebraska going 77, 75, 47 and 60 yards on four straight drive, a series of events that led to 20 unanswered points by the Cornhuskers. In comparison, Wisconsin's final five drives totaled 71 yards.
"I think for us to come down to looking at the positives and looking at the negatives," junior center Travis Frederick said. "Obviously we played a little bit better in the first half. We traditionally have not played very well in the first half we usually play better in the second half.
"So, for us I guess, a good thing is we learned to come out early but obviously we failed in the second half."