Football vs. Ohio State No. 8

Nebraska’s Nick Henrich (42) tackles Treveyon Henderson Ohio States (32) during the game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Nebraska football fell 35-28 to Wisconsin on Saturday, its eighth straight loss to the Badgers. The Nebraska offense had a fantastic showing against the Wisconsin defense, putting up 452 yards on a team that held its opponents to 211 yards on average

Yet, it was all for naught as Wisconsin ran away with the victory, despite an impassioned late charge by the Huskers.

Here are five takeaways from Nebraska’s latest heartbreaker: 

Braelon Allen broke the rush defense

Nebraska’s rush defense had succeeded in bringing the Big Ten’s top running backs to under 100 yards against Michigan State and Ohio State. Such was not the case on Saturday, with Wisconsin freshman running back Braelon Allen not only continuing his streak of consecutive 100-yard games, but breaking out for a new season-high yardage total. 

Allen rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns. He had yet to break the 200-yard mark yet this season, until a crucial fourth quarter run vaulted his total past the marker. With the game tied and less than four minutes remaining, Allen found the sideline and raced past Nebraska freshman safety Myles Farmer for the go-ahead score.

That wasn’t his only huge touchdown run of the day. On a third-and-1 in the first quarter, Allen bounced off a lunging tackle attempt by Nebraska junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, cut to the outside and was gone for a season-long 71-yard touchdown, just one yard longer than his previous benchmark run against Purdue. 

It wasn’t just the big runs that harmed the defense. Allen consistently gained solid yardage on first and second downs throughout the game, opening up opportunities for the Badger passing attack. This was shown on the Badgers’ second third-quarter touchdown drive, where a mixture of Allen runs and passes set up a first-and-goal where three straight Allen runs ended in Wisconsin finding paydirt.

Poor angles and bad tackling form plagued the Blackshirts’ defense of Allen, a far cry from the successful run defense of past games.

The Nebraska defense did make some progress stopping the run, particularly stuffing senior fullback John Chenal on a fourth-and-1, but when the Badgers needed a big play on the ground, Allen was there to deliver. 

Mistakes were there, but Adrian Martinez proved his worth

Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez’s performance featured a little bit of everything Husker fans have seen from him in his four years at Nebraska. 

There were some ill-advised passes that were intercepted, namely the lob at the start of the fourth quarter which Wisconsin senior safety Collin Wilder caught as if it were a punt. However, there were also moments of pure quarterback brilliance, such as the fourth-and-2 with 7:45 remaining.

With the Huskers trailing by 7 and at the Wisconsin 45-yard line, it was hard to see a path forward for the Huskers that did not involve getting the first down. Pressure in the pocket forced Martinez to scramble backwards, which he used to buy enough time for junior tight end Austin Allen to emerge wide open downfield.

Throwing downfield at a tough angle, Martinez floated the pass right to Allen, gaining 38 yards and parking the Huskers near the goal line.

Allen and senior wide receiver Samori Toure had great performances for the Huskers, with Martinez showing strong rapport with both. Allen caught seven passes for 143 yards, averaging a remarkable 20.4 yards per completion. Toure was similarly dominant, hauling in seven catches for 113 yards and a touchdown.

Martinez used his legs to make plays as well. He rushed for three first downs and a touchdown on Saturday, showing competence when Nebraska needed him to make plays on the ground.

Martinez threw for a season-high 351 yards, and while he missed a few open receivers and turned the ball over twice, his performance was still one Nebraska expects to see when he takes the field.

After his quarterback coach and offensive coordinator were fired during the bye week, Martinez led a motivated Husker offense that showed fight and did not back down from the nation’s leading defense. Scoring against this Wisconsin defense is no easy feat, and it's something Martinez did more than any Badger opponent since September.

The offensive line crumbled under pressure

Wisconsin has a stout defense, one that the Huskers’ offensive line felt the brunt of all game long. While Wisconsin had no sacks, they were able to make life hectic for Martinez, tallying five quarterback hurries.

The run blocking was even less strong, with Wisconsin tallying three tackles for loss and holding the Huskers to just 2.9 yards per carry. Winning the line of scrimmage on the rushes was a common sight for the Badger front, with Nebraska struggling to move the ball down the field on runs.

When the run blocking needed to step up most, it didn’t, particularly on a second-and-2 at the Wisconsin 6-yard line in the first quarter. Sophomore running back Markese Stepp had nowhere to go on second and third downs, setting up a fourth down incompletion on a floater to the end zone.

However, the area where the offensive line hurt the team the most was in late-game penalties. Nebraska was flagged previously for on its fourth-quarter touchdown drive, though the call’s impact was negated by Martinez’s fourth-down completion to Allen.

On the following Nebraska possession, with the Huskers trailing by seven and time ticking down, Nebraska found itself knocking on the door of the end zone with a first-and-10 at the Wisconsin 11-yard line. On its first play from the spot, freshman offensive lineman Bryce Benhart was flagged for holding, shifting the 1st-and-10 into a 1st-and-20. 

The Huskers would not gain any one of those yards back, giving the ball away on a turnover on downs after a 4th-and-20 incompletion. In a unit that’s been plagued by penalties all season, it picked an inopportune time to cost the Huskers a chance at a score.

Special teams struggles remain

On the subject of units that have been inconsistent-to-outright bad for the Huskers this season, the special teams again spotted the opponent unnecessary points. 

The opening kickoff was short of the end zone, bouncing to Wisconsin sophomore wide receiver Stephan Bracey at the eight-yard line. Bracey picked up the kick, shook off some would-be tacklers and returned the kick 91 yards to the house, giving Wisconsin a very early 7-0 advantage.

The 91-yard kick return was more kick return yards than the Badgers have had in any single game so far this season.

The kick return struggles come a week after Nebraska head coach Scott Frost described the unit as “vastly improved.”

After Wisconsin claimed a 28-21 lead, kickoff struggles killed momentum for a potential Husker response drive. Freshman wide receiver Alante Brown called for fair catch on the kickoff, but muffed it, deading the ball upon its recovery at the 6-yard line. Nebraska got out of the shadow of its own endzone, but the drive ended in an interception.

In yet another one-possession loss, special teams errors played a crucial role in giving Nebraska’s opponent the advantage. 

The referees did not lose this game, the Huskers did

On Nebraska’s final offensive snap, Wisconsin senior defensive back Caesar Williams made contact with Nebraska freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts before the arrival of the football. 

No call for pass interference was made, drawing a heated response from Frost, who drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after berating the officials. 

While Frost may have a point about the missed call, the fact still remains that Nebraska let another winnable one-possession game slip from its grasp.

Kicking a touchback on the opening kickoff, converting the fourth-and-2 in Wisconsin territory, or not holding to set up a 1st-and-20 would have gotten the Huskers closer to victory than a called pass interference would. 

As it stands, Nebraska lost its seventh one-possession game of the year, one where it remained competitive most of the way through. As is the case with many of those previous losses, changing a few mistakes would have gone a long way in changing the outcome. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com