For all of the ups and downs that Nebraska’s 2022 season has provided, winning on Senior Day still would have offered a cathartic moment in a season that has had few of those.
For all but one minute of Saturday’s contest against Wisconsin, Nebraska was in the driver’s seat to secure a victory.
Instead, Wisconsin scored a go-ahead touchdown with 35 seconds left in the game and walked out of Memorial Stadium with a 15-14 win over Nebraska.
While the stadium had already emptied out plenty on a cold, windy day, those in attendance shuffled out knowing Nebraska (3-8, 2-6 Big Ten) had been here before.
Close, but not close enough.
“I feel bad for those seniors and I feel disappointed in myself that we weren’t able to pull out a win for them,” defensive linemen Ty Robinson said. “It’s just frustrating to come back every week and put in all this effort, time and energy and feel like you’re ready to go and then go play three great quarters and then all of a sudden sputter out at the end.”
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On a day where blustering wind gusts threatened to derail any and all offense, the return of starting quarterback Casey Thompson represented hope for Nebraska. Thompson set the tone early by fighting for extra yardage and running over defenders rather than sliding down, and he helped Nebraska outgain Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) during a scoreless first quarter.
“Because of my love for the game and because of my love for this team, I wanted to come back and play,” said Thompson, who missed Nebraska's past two games due to a nerve injury.
The Huskers stalled out near midfield on two of their first three drives, opting to punt and play the field position game rather than attempt a short fourth-down try.
That decision paid off in a big way when Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz lofted a pass into the wind on third down, only for Nebraska freshman cornerback Malcolm Hartzog to come down with the ball for a crucial interception.
“When Malcolm first intercepted that ball, you could see No. 5 throw it up in the air and it just died and dropped right in his hands,” Robinson said. “We knew that it (the wind) was going to be a huge factor and that it was mainly going to be a running game, so it was a huge advantage if you were away from the wind.”
With the help of a key third-down conversion from senior tight end Travis Vokolek, Nebraska turned the takeaway into points. Thompson fired a pass into a spot where only his intended target, Trey Palmer, could make a play on the ball. Palmer did just that, hauling in an 11-yard touchdown pass right on the edge of the end zone for a 7-0 Nebraska lead.
After gaining 47 yards on nine consecutive run plays, a waning game clock forced Wisconsin into passing downs with under a minute left in the half.
Three consecutive Mertz incompletions forced Wisconsin to trot out the field-goal unit — a dangerous situation when going against the wind. And while a 39-yard field goal would normally be right in the wheelhouse of Wisconsin kicker Nate Van Zelst, his kick died in the heavy winds and fell short of the goalpost.
Despite holding Wisconsin scoreless for 30 minutes, the Nebraska defense still had plenty of work to do in the second half.
After the two teams traded three-and-outs on their opening possessions of the half, Wisconsin got rolling with one of its trademark clock-chewing drives. The Badgers ran the ball on 10 of their 14 plays during a drive that took up over 7:30 of clock but only resulted in a 25-yard field goal.
With the help of two crucial Wisconsin penalties, Nebraska marched 79 yards down the field for an immediate response. When Wisconsin lost sight of Palmer, he hauled in a 19-yard pass from Thompson for his second touchdown grab of the game and a 14-3 lead just before the third quarter ended.
Palmer caught a team-high four passes for 47 yards, while Thompson finished the game 12-of-20 passing for 106 yards.
From that point on, Nebraska only ran 13 more plays for 27 yards as the game flipped in Wisconsin’s favor. Sophomore running back Braelon Allen appeared to be limited by a shoulder injury as he combined with backup running backs Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo to gain 235 yards on 52 attempts — a rate of 4.5 yards per carry.
“We wanted to eliminate the (big) plays, and he (Allen) has that ability to break it out of the stack or hit an edge, so we wanted to minimize or eliminate those,” Nebraska edge rusher Garrett Nelson said. “When they run it that much and you’re on the field that much, it adds on, just those little runs.”
Suddenly, a game that had been dominated by defense produced a third scoring drive in three tries. Trailing by two scores, Wisconsin found the end zone on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Mertz to Skyler Bell, although a failed two-point conversion meant Nebraska still led 14-9.
When the Nebraska defense stepped up to force a punt with five minutes left in the game, keeping the ball on the ground and gaining multiple first downs could have put the game out of reach for good. Instead, Nebraska went three-and-out and punted it right back — an indictment on a rushing attack that has gone missing in recent weeks.
Thompson was NU’s leading rusher on the day with 11 carries for 33 yards, while running back Anthony Grant totaled just 29 yards on 16 attempts.
“As an offense as a whole, we just didn’t execute very well,” Vokolek said. “Not everyone did their job, and those are the results that happen. It’s unfortunate that we had to put our defense in that spot; I thought they played great.”
Wisconsin drove 50 yards in just over 2:30, capped by a game-winning 1-yard touchdown run from Mertz.
Once again, Nebraska didn’t lose because its opponent pulled out all the stops and got fancy. The Huskers knew coming into the game that Wisconsin would try and keep the ball, grind down the clock and lean on its run game.
Wisconsin still outgained Nebraska 235-65 in rushing yards. And while the Huskers needed to keep the ball themselves, they failed in that regard as well. Wisconsin possessed the ball for 36:57 on Saturday, compared to 23 minutes of possession for Nebraska.
“That’s a lot of snaps when a team’s running the ball at you because eventually, they’ll start leaning on you,” Nebraska interim head coach Mickey Joseph said. “We’ve got to keep the ball on offense to give them a chance.”
Regardless of what’s happened to Nebraska this season, losing a one-point game that it controlled for much of the day was always going to sting.
And for a team that’s had plenty of those stinging postgame moments, Saturday offered yet another.
“Guys are emotional and upset because it’s not a very good way to go out for all the seniors,” Vokolek said. “It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.”