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Huskers falling short to UW the only predictable outcome in an otherwise weird Big Ten tilt

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Nebraska vs. Wisconsin, 11.20

Wisconsin's Caesar Williams (21) celebrates after Nebraska's fourth-down attempt failed in the last few seconds of the game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

MADISON, Wis. — Almost nothing unfolded as expected on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.

Nebraska’s defense, which had played several talented running backs this year and held all of them in check, was shredded by a bulldozing 17-year-old who only finished playing his high school ball a couple of hours north of here in Fond du Lac six months ago.

Nebraska’s offense, without the quartet of assistant coaches fired by head coach Scott Frost less than two weeks ago, returned the favor, shredding a prolific Badger defense that entered the game leading the nation at just 211 yards allowed per game.

The tale of the tape suggested a November rock fight between Big Ten West foes heading in opposite directions.

The football gods delivered something more closely resembling a shootout.

But here’s the thing: “Almost” stands as the appropriate modifier because, at the end of the day, one of the more predictable elements of the matchup did come true, even if most didn’t.

The team that’s made a habit of finding ways to win in the Big Ten did just that and the team that’s made a habit of finding ways to lose responded in kind.

The end result: Wisconsin 35, Nebraska 28, after prodigious freshman running back Braelon Allen ripped off a 53-yard touchdown with 3 minutes, 50 seconds remaining and a holding penalty gummed up the Huskers’ last-ditch attempt at winning the game in the final minute.

Nebraska (3-8 overall, 1-7 Big Ten) hadn’t given up more than 100 yards to a running back since Michigan’s Hassan Haskins had 123 on Oct. 9, but Allen crossed the threshold in the first quarter.

His final run of the night, the 53-yard scoring burst through a Myles Farmer tackle attempt, gave him 228 and three touchdowns and the Badgers a one-score lead with less than 4 minutes to play.

On the sideline, NU coach Scott Frost told his team, now trailing 35-28, that they were going for two and the win if the Huskers scored on their ensuing drive.

“One thing I’ll say and I said to the team, there’s been a little too much hoping we win, I think, and not enough knowing we’re going to win and believing we’re going to win," Frost said. "I’ve been around the guys all day at the hotel and here and the guys believed they were going to win today. I think they even believed it on that drive.

“I told them before the drive, ‘We’re going to go for two when we score.’ And we were headed in that direction.”

Indeed, the Huskers moved the ball down the field like a team intent on making the coach’s words come true.

Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez completed first-down passes to Brody Belt and Samori Toure and put NU into UW territory. Then he hit Levi Falck for 5 and Toure for 7 more and another first down to the UW 30.

Nebraska vs. Wisconsin, 11.20

Nebraska's Austin Allen gets upended by Wisconsin's Dean Engram (6) in the fourth quarter Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

Now in scoring range, Frost wasn’t the least bit worried about the clock after a first-down Belt run went for no gain and time ticked under the 1-minute mark.

“I wasn’t even thinking about the timeouts,” Frost said. “I didn’t want to score too fast.”

Junior tight end Austin Allen, unstoppable most of the night, drew a pass interference penalty, and now the Huskers were set up first-and-10 at the UW 11.

Allen finished with an NU tight end single-game record 143 yards on seven catches, while Toure added 113 yards and a 3-yard second-quarter touchdown on seven catches of his own.

On the next snap, though, redshirt freshman right tackle Bryce Benhart was flagged for holding — left tackle Turner Corcoran got hit with that call twice earlier in the game — and backed the visitors up to first-and-20.

From there, Martinez fired four straight incompletions, the last of which was intended for Zavier Betts at the goal line and could easily have been called pass interference again in the waning seconds. A penalty would have set Nebraska up first-and-10 just outside the 10-yard line, with likely one play to try to score.

Instead, the Badgers took over on downs, kneeled once, and the game was over.

“I need to go back and watch it on film to see the whole grasp of the play there, but we had a bunch of crossing-type routes and that’s where I thought we had the best shot,” said Martinez, who finished with 351 passing yards and 374 total yards of offense while breaking Tommy Armstrong’s program record for career offensive yardage. “A situation like that, fourth-and-(20), you need to give someone a chance and that’s what I was trying to do.”

Frost was apoplectic on the sideline, hounding the officiating crew until he drew a personal foul. He said he was too angry to even ask for an explanation.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he added. “Listen, we played a really good football team tonight. Wisconsin is good in all three phases.”

Nebraska vs. Wisconsin, 11.20

Wisconsin's Braelon Allen (0) gets tackled by Nebraska's Ben Stille (95) in the second quarter on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

Then he reeled off some of Nebraska’s miscues, of which there were several.

Wisconsin’s powerful run game gave Nebraska’s defense fits the entire game — Allen’s first touchdown run covered 71 yards and featured multiple Husker defenders, including junior Cam Taylor-Britt, failing to tackle him — but the Huskers had several chances to forge a different outcome.

Before the opening kickoff wobbled low off of NU freshman Brendan Franke’s foot, Wisconsin reserve wide receiver Stephan Bracey had not touched the football in a game this year. He picked up the bouncing ball, eluded an Isaac Gifford tackle attempt and others, bounced to the right and raced 91 yards for a touchdown.

On offense, Nebraska punted just twice, but Martinez threw a pair of interceptions — the first Frost said was not his fault, but the second was a poor decision and poorer throw up the sideline — and the offense turned the ball over on downs twice in the red zone.

Midway through the first quarter, junior receiver Omar Manning ran the wrong motion and had the snap hit him as he passed between Martinez and center Cam Jurgens. That came after NU covered 36 yards on the first four plays of the march. Once behind the sticks, UW’s defense teed off on Martinez and the Huskers settled for a William Przystup punt that should have been downed inside the 5-yard line and instead was allowed to trickle into the end zone for a touchback.

Allen picked up 4 on the UW’s first play of the ensuing drive, then 5, then burst 71 for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

The Huskers threw haymakers in response, they just also made far more mistakes than the buttoned-up Badgers.

“I have so much respect for (Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim) Leonhard,” Frost said after his team finished with 452 yards and the most points UW’s allowed in almost two months. “I said going into the game I thought they were one of the best defenses we’ve watched on tape getting ready for a game. We’ve had some success against them getting yards, but we haven’t won. That’s the stat that matters the most. I thought the team we had put together a really good game plan and I thought for the most part we executed it well, minus one mistake in the first half at wideout where we didn’t run the right motion and influenced the snap. That cost us a drive. And a couple penalties on the offensive line. We kind of stopped ourselves as much as we got stopped.”

So it’s been this year. Every time the Huskers play a top team, they show up. Every time, the mistakes add up. Every time, Frost’s team has come up short.

Nebraska is now a staggering 0-7 in one-score games this year alone. They chewed up and spit out a defense that could legitimately call itself the nation’s best on the road and still left with a loss.

Now there’s just one chance left to salvage a big win, a rivalry win, a win of any kind. It’s coming fast, too, on Friday afternoon back in Lincoln against Iowa, which was pushed on Saturday by Illinois.

How long ago does Aug. 28 feel now? In some ways, it was a football lifetime ago. Players and coaches have come and gone in the three months since. The Huskers' hopes have swelled and ebbed. The season — like Saturday in Madison — has been weirder than anybody could have imagined.

There’s been only one constant the whole way, and it’s the thing Frost knows he has to figure out a way to eradicate before August 2022 rolls around.

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