In and of itself, a game against a Nebraska team that has hit rock bottom would no longer be noteworthy on the University of Wisconsin’s football schedule.
No offense to Nebraska, a traditional college football power that arrived at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday night with an 0-4 record under first-year savior Scott Frost, but these days a victory is the expectation when you play the Cornhuskers. The only question is by how much.
The latter was an especially important question for the 16th-ranked Badgers, however.
After four unsatisfying games followed by a bye week, UW had yet to put together a wall-to-wall, wire-to-wire performance in a season that began with national championship aspirations. The penalty-plagued, weak-along-both-lines Cornhuskers represented the Badgers’ last chance to put it all together before the real season begins.
With four of its next six games on the road, including dates at Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State, UW badly needed to hit its stride against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers’ offense was dangerous, but its defense was among the nation’s most generous and a never-ending stream of penalties got so bad a frustrated Frost felt the need to call out his players publicly last week. Despite an outstanding victory at Iowa, UW needed the confidence a dominating victory over Nebraska would provide.
But if you were waiting for a razor-sharp performance and a dominating victory from UW, you’re still waiting. The Badgers were never really in danger of losing to the Cornhuskers, but their 41-24 victory was filled with many of the same inconsistencies that surfaced during their first four games.
Oh, there were some encouraging signs for the Badgers, maybe even more signs than usual. But the efficiency that eluded them before the bye week continued to do so despite the lopsided final score. That level of play likely won’t cut it against Michigan at the Big House next week.
For sure, UW did some good things in basically putting away Nebraska by the end of the third quarter. Mostly, it was the same things the Badgers did in their first four games: running up big yardage totals on offense, scoring a touchdown in the 2-minute drill just before halftime, answering with a long touchdown drive immediately after Nebraska hit them with a 75-yard touchdown pass early in the second half.
However, many of the season-long questions went unanswered for a team that has been nicked by injuries, defections and suspensions.
The Cornhuskers entered the game giving up 39 points per game and 49 per game in their two Big Ten Conference outings, exactly the kind of defense the Badgers needed to see if they hoped to smooth out an offense that has played fitfully. But UW got off to yet another slow start, making it a perfect 5-for-5 in that regard this season. The Badgers took only a 3-0 lead into the second quarter, meaning they’ve scored just two first-quarter touchdowns all season.
Once again, it wasn’t a matter of gaining yards. UW had 235 at halftime and 533 for the game, including a whopping 370 rushing. Instead, it was more a case of turning those yards into points for an offense that was supposed to have everything.
All season, an off-target pass here, a dropped pass there, a missed block here and a penalty there have stalled UW’s drives. Tailback Jonathan Taylor ran hard and effectively and quarterback Alex Hornibrook stayed away from big mistakes, but the Badgers left too many points on the field — an all-too-common theme this season.
UW’s youthful secondary, which has been plagued by breakdowns that led to long touchdown passes, figured to have more problems because Nebraska’s offense has dual-threat quarterback Adrian Martinez and two of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten in Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman. Making matters worse, the secondary began the game short-handed, with cornerback Caesar Williams unable to suit up, then lost cornerback Deron Harrell to a head injury and safety Scott Nelson to a targeting penalty.
The Badgers kept everything in front of them in the first half, but Martinez, a freshman who looks like he’ll be nothing but trouble in the years ahead, started finding open receivers behind the defense in the second. It began with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Morgan on the second play of the second half, which cut UW’s lead to 20-10 and left the fans a bit uneasy.
They stayed that way because often it felt like it was Nebraska stopping Nebraska, not UW’s defense. The Cornhuskers lived up to their reputation with 10 penalties for 100 yards, many of them on offense.
It wasn’t until Taylor’s 88-yard burst up the middle for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter that everyone was able to relax.
“It was a good team win,” coach Paul Chryst said. “There’s some stuff to build and then obviously there’ll be things we’re going to look at and clean up and try to improve on.”
Chryst has said something similar after every game during UW’s 4-1 start. Now, UW has run out of time. Ready or not, the hard part of the schedule is here.
Once again, UW was good but not great Saturday. That was good enough to beat Nebraska. It’s hard to imagine it’ll be good enough in the weeks ahead.