University of Wisconsin football players understood that Saturday’s 35-28 win over Nebraska was an eye-opening experience for both sides of the ball.
It cemented the breakout season of freshman running back Braelon Allen, showed that the UW offense could put up points and respond in pressure-packed moments, and that the Badgers (8-3, 6-2) could still win when the defense was less than stellar.
Some of the finer points of the Badgers’ victory — UW pushed its win streak to seven, the program’s longest since 2017 — required another viewing to understand. Before all eyes turn to the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe and UW’s quest to win the Big Ten West for the third time in five years, here are four observations from the Badgers’ win over Nebraska.
1. Interior blocking strong again
The UW offensive line has evolved as the season has run its course, and the current version is doing a wider variety of things better right now than it has all year.
Perhaps the most intriguing development over the past three weeks that was on display against Nebraska was the pin-and-pull techniques the Badgers are using up front. The best example of this was on Braelon Allen’s winning 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
People are also reading…
Tanor Bortolini — a tackle playing like a tight end who was used on 14 snaps — and tight end Jack Eschenbach bury the defensive end and the backside linebacker to allow right tackle Logan Bruss and center Joe Tippmann to pull around the edge. Bruss kicks out linebacker Blaise Gunderson, then Tippmann engages with inside linebacker Luke Reimer about 4 yards down field.
By the time Braelon Allen has throttled up to full speed, he’s got a lane to the third level of the defense.
It wasn’t a perfect day for UW’s offensive line, as it allowed a sack and got stuffed on a fourth-and-1 in the second half, but for the majority of the game it was passing off bodies in the run game and finishing blocks with authority. This group’s step forward this season is as important to the team’s winning as the impact of Allen.
2. Best quarter of the season for offense
In the third quarter against the Cornhuskers, UW ran 12 plays and scored 14 points.
The first drive — a four-play scoring march of 33 yards — was set up by Collin Wilder’s interception and return into Nebraska territory. But UW’s offense finished the job with a quick drive, highlighted by two accurate passes from quarterback Graham Mertz. The first was a short pass over the middle to tight end Jake Ferguson, who shimmied by a defender to pick up a first down. The second was a strike of 13 yards to Kendric Pryor for a touchdown.
The second series saw UW get the ball back tied at 21 and use six rushing plays and two passes to move 75 yards in less than five minutes. Pryor had a catch-and-run of 28 yards to convert the quarter’s only third down and Allen’s gallop of 22 yards got UW into the red zone. Allen scored his second touchdown of the afternoon after three rushes inside the 10.
UW’s offense was efficient, avoided third downs and let the running game set up the passing attack. It was exactly what the Badgers wanted, and it’s the kind of quarters they need to string together the next two weeks to threaten for a surprise Big Ten title.
3. Quiet OLBs by design
Nebraska offensive tackles Turner Corcoran and Bryce Benhart have struggled throughout the season, so it was reasonable to expect UW outside linebackers Noah Burks and Nick Herbig to have active days in the backfield. But after studying how they played against the Huskers, it was clear their assignment wasn’t to be the potential game-altering forces off the edge they’ve shown they can be.
Both Burks and Herbig were more cautious with how they rushed Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, serving as contain players while the inside linebackers were tasked with blitzing frequently. Burks and Herbig combined for 11 tackles, seven by Herbig, but only one for a loss, also by Herbig. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard sacrificed some pass-rush for protection from Martinez scrambling around the edge, and that trade-off worked to contain Martinez’s rushing ability, but he threw for more yards against UW than any opposing quarterback this season.
Against Minnesota next week, expect to see the outside linebackers crashing down the line after a week of setting the edge and forcing things inside.
4. Not a ‘blueprint game’
Since Leonhard took over as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator, his units have allowed an average of 462 yards per game to Nebraska. His defenses have allowed an average of 268.4 yards to all other opponents. Yes, that second number includes nonconference Group of Five games that help decrease it, but the point remains: Nebraska’s a thorn in Leonhard’s side, and this game doesn’t “expose” UW’s defense.
Some of what the Huskers did needs to be addressed in UW’s defense scheme — especially the delayed releases by tight ends, because those are easy enough to add to an offense. Those plays gave up first downs too often and kept the defense on the field. But a lot of what Nebraska did was simply the right call or the right matchup at the right time.
Concerns of UW’s corners against good receivers are legitimate, but those corners also shut down David Bell against Purdue. Worry about the secondary handling tight ends, sure, but how many sacks have been created because a Badgers inside linebacker took the risk of giving up a short pass to a tight end and went on a blitz?
The aggressiveness with which the UW defense plays is inherently risky, but the rewards are also high. The Huskers did just about everything right, protecting their quarterback, getting chunk plays and staying out of third-and-long for the most part. They did just enough to come up a couple of plays short against a defense that was having an off day, but still created two turnovers.
Badgers fans on Twitter have mixed feelings after Wisconsin barely passes Nebraska's test
Passing the practice exam
Nebraska was a great test for the Badgers should they play Ohio State in two weeks. Martinez was effective throughout the game on crossing patterns, and Wisconsin didn’t have an answer. Braelon Allen is going to be among the great running backs in Badgers history. Huge win!— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) November 20, 2021
Like a fine wine ...
I think everyone except Braelon Allen aged about 50 years after that one! Not sure if you heard, but he's only 17. Still. 😜😂😂🏈— Rob Hernandez (@RobHernandezGLF) November 20, 2021
Just sneaking through
It was a TIGHT ENDing. But the good guys got just what they needed to win.— Chris Davis (@cdavis20000) November 21, 2021
A fitting farewell
Obvious take is that Huskers are much better than their record. Good test for the offense on a day when the defense was subpar. Happy for the seniors to get a win on Senior Day. Now on to the Ground Squirrels and the Battle for the Axe!— Russ Evansen (@waunaruss) November 21, 2021
Battle to the buzzer
Hats off to NB. They played a great game. Admire their no quit. Badger O was good and carried the D for the first time this season. Fantastic home ender— BadgerFan (@divot516) November 20, 2021
Keeping it rolling
7 in a row!— Sean Stephenson (@sgstephenson) November 20, 2021
Still room to improve
Did just enough to beat a scrappy Husker team. Defense will make adjustments and offensive line getting better each week.— Jon Ahlgrim (@JonAhlgrim) November 21, 2021
Offense returns the favor
This was a very good win. Nebraska was dangerous and way better than their record. Offense did what it had to. Not Leonhard’s best day, though. If we’re being honest Frost prepared his offense better than Leonhard coached his D.— ryebadger (@ryebadger1) November 21, 2021
Nebraska will beat Iowa...best 3-8 team I've ever seen— OnWisconsin (@jgraf36) November 20, 2021
NB should have called time out without losing valuable minutes. NB could have scored, gone for two so a PI and two receptions from a Uw loss. The PI the refs did call was uncatchable, so poor grade for refs. Badgers should beat Gophers for West title.— Steve Kazan (@skazan) November 21, 2021
Up for the challenge
I hope to find out— Dennis Whitehead (@Badgerden1) November 20, 2021
A win's a win
Not a clean game on either side of the ball…but ugly wins are still wins.— Todd (@pilprin) November 21, 2021
Enjoy the show!
1) B. Allen will be on Heisman watch next year.— Cat Lady Darcy (@CatLadyDarcy) November 21, 2021
2) Hopes that Chryst cld attract WRs are dead.
3) I live near Indy. Not looking forward to watching my Badgers get drubbed by Ohio St. Again.
Flaws on full display
Badgers were exposed again in the secondary. If opposing QBs get any time we can’t cover WR. Pass blocking and WR play needs big improvements for the Big Ten Championship game should we beat Minnesota next week— Bill Schroeder (@BigBill021) November 21, 2021
All too real
Nebraska fans must see Wisconsin running backs in their nightmares.— Andrew Zimdars (@andrew_zimdars) November 20, 2021
Picking up the slack
Stay with it
Need to focus on the secondary not breaking coverage when the QB starts to scramble.— Tyler Chesmore (@TylerChesmore) November 20, 2021
Narrowly dodging disaster
Too close! Nebraska was playing with house money and it needed every bit of effort to win this. On to Minnesota.— Kurt Sagendorph (@ksagendo) November 21, 2021
Finding another gear
Huskers played really well. These games happen. And the team dug down and won. Also our running back is 17 years old. 😌— Hannah Mott (@TheEverydayMath) November 20, 2021
It takes a team
The defense wasn't great. Allen is a stud.— Brian Hipp (@Brianhipp) November 20, 2021
Living on the edge
Scary relying on the offense when the D struggles.— Ryan (@RyanBrown812) November 20, 2021
Back to the drawing board
For once, the Offense bailed out the Defense. Leonard and team have work to do this week…— Mike T (@badger2k) November 21, 2021
Bubble burst on the great defense. Ohio St. will kill them if they get that far.— Ken Rasmussen (@KenRasmussen2) November 21, 2021
Priority No. 1
They won, that's all that matters.— Dickie P (@dpedder10) November 21, 2021