Making his first collegiate road start, redshirt freshman Joel Stave exceeded expectations in the first half. He was efficient (9-for-14) and was productive (throwing for 161 yards and one touchdown), a big reason the Badgers led by 10 at halftime. But when Nebraska made adjustments in the second half to stop the run game, Stave and company couldn't the necessary plays or sustain that one drive that could have stopped Nebraska's momentum in its tracks.
"(Nebraska) played well on defense and really stepped up in the second half," said Stave, who was just 3-for-9 and 53 yards in the second half. "We need to watch film and learn from it."
Stave is still learning and was fortunate that two of his poor decisions weren't interception (senior linebacker Will Compton dropped a point-blank pass in the second half).
After being blindsided on a second-down sack late in the fourth quarter, the Badgers inserted Danny O'Brien for a third-and-26 play (an inside handoff to Montee Ball came nowhere close) and let O'Brien run the two minute offense with 2:55 remaining. According to UW coach Bret Bielema, O'Brien looked proficient during Wednesday's practice running the two-minute offense and supposedly is Wisconsin's best quarterback in the two-minute situation.
O'Brien looked the part, completing 3 of 4 passes for 25 yards, but made two critical errors. The first came on second-and-6 from the Wisconsin 44-yard line, as O'Brien picked a low snap off the turf with his knee on the ground. That whistled the play dead and kept the clock running. That proved costly after O'Brien completed a 10-yard crossing route to Jordan Fredrick. Originally ruled to have the first down, video replay moved the ball back a half yard (the correct call) setting up a fourth-and-inches.
Forced to go for it, a miscommunication between O'Brien and the sidelines caused a botched handoff to Ball and a fumble that was recovered by Nebraska instead of a designed naked bootleg. It didn't appear as if the bootleg would have worked with Nebraska lined up with a cornerback and safety to the outside, but we'll never know.
"The energy in the huddle was right to win that game," said O‘Brien.
With a quarterback with more experience, perhaps Wisconsin doesn't find itself sliding down a slippery slope without getting a foothold. Stave has to learn sometime and certainly threw the ball with conviction. With another mental error by O'Brien, it appears more and more fans are hoping that Stave because the option for the remainder of the season.
"We showed that we can be good," said Stave. "We just have to keep working at it." Grade: C-
Wisconsin's senior tailback gets 90 yards and three touchdowns, but the numbers are incredibly deceiving once you realized Ball had 73 yards and three touchdowns in the first 34:31. Ball showed no ill effects of the concussion that knocked him out of last week's game, but Ball never showcased that breakout speed when he had a rare opportunity. As a result, Ball averaged 2.8 yards on his 32 carries and had only two runs over 10 yards.
"We just got to bring the energy, bring the urgency," said Ball. "Players make plays, and we really didn't in the second half."
With Ball being ineffective and the running game being stalled with its best options, Wisconsin's other running backs had little to no chance. Melvin Gordon had only two carries for five yards and James White had one carry for minus five.
After coming back for what he hoped to be a record-breaking senior season, Ball is probably regretting his decision considering how hard he was biting his tongue in the post-game press conference.
Although Ball gets a lot of the praise and attention from the outside media, Jared Abbrederis continues to be Wisconsin's best, and more important, playmaker on the field. With the Badgers still looking for a secondary receiver, Abbrederis carried the offense's passing attack in the first half by grabbing five of his seven passes for 107 of his 142 receiving yards.
Abbrederis was a big part of the initial sucker punch that Wisconsin threw at Nebraska. He hauled in a 54-yard reception off a play-action pass on the game's second play that resulted in a touchdown and his 29-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter gave Wisconsin a shocking 20-3 advantage, one of two separate 17-point leads Wisconsin had throughout the game but couldn't hold on to.
"We had them," said Abbrederis. "We were up. We just have to keep it going."
Although Wisconsin doesn't have a consistent number two, the Badgers got good contributions from Fredrick (three catches for 27 yards), Kenzel Doe (two for 25) and Chase Hammond, who adjusted beautifully to haul in a 30-yard pass for his first career catch.
The most disturbing thing from the receiving game is the fact that Jacob Pedersen and Jeff Duckworth are nonexistent. Pedersen had a reception overturned when he couldn't get his hands on a low throw after it initially was ruled complete, meaning he finished the game with zero receptions and has only nine completions all season. In terms of Duckworth, did he stay in the hotel?
If I wrote this at halftime, I'd tell you Wisconsin's offensive line took a huge step forward against a Nebraska defense that hadn't allowed a rushing touchdown all season. As I write this now, it's another frustrating performance by a Wisconsin offensive line that has yet to find its groove five games into the season.
Wisconsin tried to do some different things, like using Robby Burge as a tight end early, to get some inside powers early. After halftime, Nebraska got a bigger push than the offensive line could handle. After registering 205 total yards in the first half, Wisconsin managed only 90 in the final two quarters, including 18 second-half run plays going for 12 yards (.67 per carry).
"I think we didn't come out the second half with the amount of fire we did in the first half," said junior center Travis Frederick. "Obviously we were excited to come out there. Our first drive didn't go as we planned. At that point, we couldn't get ourselves going, and that's where I think we really struggled."
All the blame should be put on the offensive line, as they aren't the ones orchestrating the adjustments, or lack thereof, on the sideline. After going up 17 points, the Badgers got conservative and played like it. Wisconsin's seven second-half drives averaged 15.4 yards and none amassing over 40 yards of offense.
In a word: pitiful.
Wisconsin was credited with a quarterback hurry, but the Badgers' pressure on Taylor Martinez early forced the junior quarterback to make some poor throws and decision that stymied his offense.
But with Brendan Kelly (hamstring) and Pat Muldoon (hand) out once again, Wisconsin's defensive end rotation struggled, especially late in the game when Martinez began taking off on scrambles and designed runs. After David Gilbert registered his 10-yard sack and forced fumble early in the third quarter, he only made one more tackle in the game. Tyler Dippel finished with four tackles from the other side.
"We let it slip away from us," said Gilbert. "We let the momentum shift and we couldn't get it back in time."
Ethan Hemer and Konrad Zegzebski (who got his first career start) each had a pass breakup, but the defensive line allowed 191 rushing yards in the second half and three players to rush for over 70 yards. While Martinez's 107 yards hurt, the Badgers allowed 66 rushing yards to Ameer Abdullah after halftime really hurt.
Is it too late to launch Chris Borland's Heisman campaign? While his nine tackles were only third-best on the team, Borland hurdled an offensive player for a tackle for loss and ran down Rex Burkhead on the far sideline two plays later for no gain. That limited Nebraska to a field goal after UW's special teams gave up good field position following a long kickoff return. Borland also recovered his fourth and fifth fumble of his career, both of which were UW's first defensive turnovers of the year and both led to touchdowns.
Senior Mike Taylor finished with a game-high 15 tackles (7 solos) and one tackle for loss. In 10 of his last 15 games, Taylor has recorded at least 13 tackles. Ethan Armstrong chipped in with five tackles, as UW's linebackers played well with the exception of a few plays.
Wisconsin's secondary allowed only three pass completions of 20+ yards (one that was a dump-and-run in the flat) and it's not the fault of UW's secondary members that the Badgers coaches put them in a prevent defense, which ironically prevented them from playing with the same aggressive they did in the first half. As a result, it prevented them from winning.
With Wisconsin playing off its receivers to not allow deep passes, Martinez was able to find wide gaps in the secondary, which resulted in Marcus Cromartie (eight tackles), Devin Smith (seven) and Dezmen Southward (six) being required to make a lot of plays and tackle attempts.
Finishing with nine tackles, Michael Trotter's 15-yard contact penalty was a poor call, but his missed tackle on a 38-yard touchdown run by Martinez was costly. With due respect to Trotter, the Badgers miss the leadership and experience of senior Shelton Johnson, especially in those critical situations.
The entire defense missed a lot of tackles but like I said, UW's prevent defense prevented anything good from happening for Wisconsin in the second half.
For the first time this season, the special teams was truly poor from start to finish. For the second straight week, Bielema made a change in the kicking game, as he pulled Jack Russell after the true freshman missed an extra point and missed a 41-yard field goal from the right hash. Russell also struggled on kickoffs, averaging only 61 yards per kick and no touchbacks.
I don't envy Bielema, who is dealing with two inconsistent kickers and is in a no-win situation.
"Both of them, at times, show really, really good things," said Bielema. "It's made it difficult to decide where to go and what to go with. You really like one guy to stand up and take control, and it hasn't been able to happen for us at this point."
That hurt the coverage game, as Abdullah returned a kickoff 83 yards after Wisconsin made the score 14-0. While the Badgers' defense held Nebraska to a field goal, it was still a gift three points for the Cornhuskers.
The only saving grace, yet again, is punter Drew Meyer, who is looking more and more like a first-team freshman All-American. Punting seven times, Meyer had three punts travel over 50 yards and three downed inside the 20, giving him a 46.7-yard average.
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