In a game in which Wisconsin’s ran for half-a-thousand yards and the game was practically over by the midway point of the third quarter, it’s no surprise that the Badgers decided to abandon the passing game.
Joel Stave attempted only 11 passes and while he sailed a couple throws over his receivers heads early, was productive with seven completions, including a pair of critical throws that helped turn momentum in the first half.
With Wisconsin down 17-3 and facing a third-and-6 on its own 27, Stave threw a perfect strike to Jordan Fredrick for 11 yards that moved the chains. One play later, Melvin Gordon was gone for a 62-yard touchdown down the sidelines for UW’s first of many touchdowns.
Later in the game, Stave – on third-and-goal – hit a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Sam Arneson that gave Wisconsin the lead for good.
“Joel's ability to understand pre-snap awareness and rotations within a defense is really as good as I've ever been, second to none,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “I've never seen anyone that's been able to do that as consistent as he does and gives our offensive linemen a chance to play with leverage, or offensive linemen a chance to get on to the blocks where they have an opportunity to succeed.”
Nebraska has held its opponents to 26.6 percent (37 of 139) on third downs and not allowed any Big Ten teams to convert more than 33.3 percent of its third-down chances. The Badgers went 3-for-8 (37.5 percent).
Tanner McEvoy didn’t attempt a pass but he carried the ball six times for 56 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown scramble when the Nebraska defense paid so much attention to Gordon that they forgot to account for the junior quarterback.
McEvoy’s rushing total gives him 498 for the season, a new season rushing record for a quarterback.
UW strayed from the dual-quarterback system in the second half because of the effectiveness of the running game.
Melvin Gordon. Simply Awesome.
As stated in the quarterback section, Wisconsin’s receivers didn’t get in much pass catching work, as no wide receiver had more than two catches and nobody was over 20 receiving yards. Kenzel Doe led the team with 16 receiving yards, but his fumble on a jet sweep on UW’s second offensive play led to a Nebraska field goal off a short field.
Arneson and Fredrick only had a catch a piece, but they were both big and helped change the complexion of the game.
If Gordon would be the one writing down his name in all the record books, the junior would make sure to include a handful of others in the margins along with him.
“It should have everyone up there, all the offensive linemen because they really made it easy for me,” said Gordon. “And they allowed me to have a lot of one on one matchups. And it's kind of been like that all season. Those guys have really been looking out for me. I couldn't thank them more.”
In its last two games against Nebraska, the Badgers have rushed for a combined 1,120 yards and 15 touchdowns. It’s a staggering number if Wisconsin had five All-American linemen in the trenches, something the Badgers don’t have.
“We hit rhythm after that first series,” said left tackle Tyler Marz. “Obviously things weren’t going our way. We had a couple turnovers, but as an offensive line we were doing our job and playing well. The holes were there.”
Again the group didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but the way Wisconsin’s defensive line cleared paths for the back eight to deliver pressures on Nebraska was beyond commendable. Nebraska came into the game as one of the best rushing offenses in the country, averaging 280.7 yards per game. The Cornhuskers left with five fumbles, four of which that were recovered by the Badgers.
“You’ve got to be able to fly around and make plays to get the ball in the hands of the offense,” senior nose tackle Warren Herring said. “Coach (Dave) Aranda stressed getting some turnovers this week. The ball was going to be slippery. It’s cold, snow started coming down, you’ve got to take advantage of that and get the ball out as much as possible.”
Herring’s forced fumble might have been the play of the game since it permanently turned the tide in Wisconsin’s direction. The Badgers had cut the lead to 17-10 in the second quarter when Gordon’s fumble on the Nebraska 41 gave the Huskers prime field position.
Instead of the Huskers pushing the lead back to two scores, Herring stripped tailback Terrell Newby, allowing linebacker Joe Schobert to recover on the Wisconsin 44. On the next two offensive plays, Gordon went 39 yards and Corey Clement went 17 for a touchdown to tie the score.
“I was just trying to make a play for my team,” said Herring. “I was in the right spot at the right time. It was a good opportunity.”
Ameer Abdullah – the nation’s leader in all-purpose yards – was held to 69 yards on 18 carries (3.8 ypc) and one fumble and on 26-yard pass. That’s impressive.
In preparation for Abdullah and Nebraska’s offense, the Badgers’ coaching staff ran a tackling circuit, wanting to emphasize that missed tackles could lead to big chunks of yardage against the Wisconsin defense.
Combine that with the cold weather, making the pigskin hard and easy to punch out, Wisconsin took full advantage with its hard hitting.
“We were ready,” said Schobert. “We were stressing getting the ball out in practice the whole week and that definitely played a key role in what happened … Just being able to react and bounce on it, especially with this weather. Because it’s cold, the ball is going to be hard and slippery so you just have to be ready for it when it comes.”
Schobert recovered the Herring fumble that turned the tide and was one of three linebackers with at least 10 tackles. Named the conference defensive player of the week for the first time, Schobert also had 2.5 tackles for loss, one pass deflection when Nebraska was pinned deep in its own territory and a half sack to go along with his 11 tackles.
Marcus Trotter led all players with 12 tackles to go along with a sack and a fumble recovery. Derek Landisch was the other UW backer in double figures, and felt the Badgers’ defense responded well to the offense’s four turnovers.
“The points were a little high, but I thought we responded well to sudden change,” he said. “All those turnovers happened. We just like playing so whenever we get a chance to get out on the field that’s not easy. And that shows how we’ve grown throughout the season. We have a lot of young guys on defense, but we’ve all grown up and we know how to respond in situations like that.”
Vince Biegel has five solo tackles, but two tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
The dual-threat Tommy Armstrong was supposed to be Wisconsin’s toughest quarterback test of the season. So much for that.
Hillary was terrific, Peniel Jean added an interception he returned for 14 yards, Austin Hudson registered his first career fumble recovery and Shelton, despite a poorly called pass interference penalty, played probably his best game of the season.
“I felt good about those kids lining up against very talented receivers,” said Andersen. “We know what those young men have done in the Big Ten this year and for years in the past. But Sojourn, it's good for Sojourn to get in those moments. It was a big boy fight out there that he needed to get himself in. He didn't win every battle, but I think he won his fair share against a very good player.”
Everyone has received an A so far, but I can’t in good sense do that for special teams. First the good: Rafael Gaglianone’s 26-yard field goal in the first quarter was his eighth made field goal in a row, upping him to 13-for-16 (.813) on the season.
After the kickoff unit struggled the last few weeks, Andrew Endicott was solid with his 10 kickoffs Saturday, averaging 63.2 yards and got three touchbacks. Of the seven returns, none went longer than 25 yards. On the flip side, Doe averaged 22 yards on his three returns.
The punt teams, however, were less than special. Bart Houston’s only rugby kick hit a Wisconsin offensive lineman and only went 18 yards, setting up Nebraska’s first touchdown. The Badgers’ punt scheme was also lacking, giving up a huge alley for the Cornhuskers to run a fake punt. Eventually Nebraska did before halftime, as punter Sam Foltz ran around the right end for 14 yards behind a three-man shield.
To UW’s credit, the problem was corrected in the second half.
Andy Ludwig maximized Gordon to the fullest and also used him masterfully as a decoy. Wisconsin put Gordon in motion with McEvoy under center, the quarterback faked the handoff, five Cornhuskers defender flowed to Gordon and McEvoy waltzed into the end. When an offensive coordinator has all his weapons clicking, it becomes easy picking.
We won’t mention anything about Dave Aranda sketching up another masterful game plan because other athletic directors could be reading this and we don’t want the secret to get out.
People might still be critical of Andersen, but the ability of him and his staff to keep Wisconsin poised when it was down 17-3 has to be commended. It’s the first game UW won when once trailing by double digits since 2012 when they did it against … Andersen’s Utah State team.