University of Wisconsin defensive players finally could exhale when they spoke with the media Saturday evening.
It’d been a long, stressful afternoon for the Badgers on a side of the ball that had been as steady as any unit in college football this season. Nebraska challenged UW mentally with a wave of formations and motions that put the Badgers in binds as they tried to make calls before the snap. The Huskers challenged them physically, keeping quarterback Adrian Martinez clean and forcing defensive backs to cover for extended periods of time.
The result was the same as it’d been the past eight times that UW and Nebraska met — the No. 19 Badgers got a 35-28 win at Camp Randall Stadium to extend their winning streak to seven and stay in front of the race for the Big Ten Conference’s West Division title. But the feeling after the contest was different for UW’s defense, which got a wake-up call from an opponent that coordinator Jim Leonhard and his players have struggled with in recent years.
“Coach Leonhard jokes about his biggest headaches each year. Every year it’s Nebraska,” senior safety Collin Wilder said. “All the hard stuff that we saw this week in practice, they ran that the entire game.”
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The statistics after this game stand apart from the rest of the Badgers’ season on defense. Nebraska was the first team to eclipse 400 yards of total offense against UW (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten), finishing with 452 on 70 plays. That amount of plays was the second-most UW had allowed this season behind the 74 to Michigan on Oct. 2, UW’s most recent loss. Martinez was the first passer to throw for more than 260 yards against the Badgers, finishing with 351 yards and a TD.
Although Nebraska (3-8, 1-7) finished with only 101 yards on 35 carries, an average of 2.9 yards per rush, they punched in three short touchdowns on the ground — a season-high allowed by UW.
Perhaps most surprising was UW’s defense couldn’t hang onto leads until the game’s last possession. The Badgers had leads of 7-0, 14-7, 21-14 and 28-21 that all were matched. The defense’s last stop, a pass break-up by senior cornerback Faion Hicks with Nebraska facing fourth-and-20 from the 22, should’ve been flagged for defensive pass interference.
“They made some plays,” Chryst said about Nebraska. “A couple of them we thought they might go to early. … It’s a good offense and we knew going in their quarterback’s a heck of a player and dynamic.”
Martinez drew praise from Badgers defenders this week for his ability to elude pressure and extend plays with his mobility. That was on display frequently as he ran away from blitzing linebackers and dumped off passes to receivers who’d come open late in the play.
UW didn’t produce a sack for the first time since the Michigan loss after posting 20 sacks over the past six games. Nebraska used seven- and eight-man protections to give Martinez time on long-developing crossing routes and he was able to connect on a number of them.
“Martinez is outrageously difficult to bring down,” senior defensive end Matt Henningsen said. “I don't know if there's anybody like him. … I've played some really good quarterbacks while I've been here. Every time we play him, we know that there's something different about this guy when it comes to bringing him down.”
The long routes were difficult to cover for UW’s cornerbacks, especially early as Samori Toure registered two catches for 69 yards on the opening touchdown drive. That was the first game-opening series in which UW’s defense has allowed points this season. Toure finished with seven catches for 113 yards.
Nebraska was able to take advantage of the aggressiveness that has been so beneficial to the UW defense this season. UW inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are given freedom to rush the passer without a blitz called if certain keys indicate they should. Nebraska repeatedly used delayed routes from tight ends to get open space over the middle of the field.
“It is something that's tough for us as defense because we see someone blocking and we're thinking like, ‘All right, he's blocking, he's not a factor and we could do something else,’” Chenal said. “Really, it's tricky if he is your coverage (assignment).”
Huskers tight end Austin Allen, a 6-foot-9 target who has been one of the more consistent weapons for Martinez, had seven catches for 143 yards, setting the Nebraska program record for receiving yards by a tight end. He was used on deep crossing routes and a number of other patterns to exploit weaknesses in UW’s defense.
Wilder said Allen was often his responsibility when the Badgers played zone coverage, but Nebraska used route combinations that forced him to stay deep and not come up to challenge Allen until UW made an adjustment late.
“There’s a lot of ground I’ve got to cover … their offense, their game plan, they found a gap in our game plan,” Wilder said.
Nebraska’s use of pre-snap motion and formations it hadn’t shown before tested UW’s ability to communicate quickly, and that communication at times broke down and led to wide-open receivers. The Huskers had 10 passing plays of at least 15 yards, which accounted for 246 yards of offense.
“It was, ‘Hey, you run as far away from this guy as you can and we’re going to throw it on the other hash,’” senior cornerback Caesar Williams said. “For them, knowing what our rules are, those are going to be there if they have time to throw it.”
Huskers coach Scott Frost fired four offensive assistants last week during the team’s bye, but the extra time to prepare for this matchup clearly helped the interim staffers put together a good game plan.
Senior safety Scott Nelson — who knocked away a potential touchdown pass in the second quarter — said though it was a difficult game, he’s not worried that what happened against Nebraska will have a carryover effect for next week’s game. UW heads to Minneapolis to play Minnesota (7-4, 5-3), and the Badgers can clinch the Big Ten West with a victory.
“Their stuff is very different than pretty much everybody in the country,” Nelson said. “They do a lot of stuff that a lot of teams don’t do.”