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Normally, a 30-27 defeat on the road against a ranked opponent isn't something for a (non-National Championship-contending) team to hang its head too low about. Still, Wisconsin showed some disturbing trends against Nebraska, both late in the game and in the running game overall.
The analysis for a back-and-forth one-possession game is easy. Both teams played hard. Both teams played similarly well. You would probably expect the road team to even be favored the next time the two teams meet -- in the case of Wisconsin and Nebraska, a distinct possibility in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship.
That was not the game we saw Saturday night in Lincoln. What we saw will be described by some as "a tale of two halves," focusing on the Badgers' rise to a 27-10 lead followed by the agonizing chip-away comeback that eventually bounced Wisconsin back to Madison with a 30-27 defeat.
Without context, a 30-27 loss to Nebraska at Nebraska really isn't a bad result for the Badgers. It's a result not particularly different from neither Purdue nor Michigan's losses against Notre Dame, a result that shows the Badgers can at least compete with the conference's top teams and could be able to beat teams on this level (like Michigan State and Ohio State) with the advantage provided by Camp Randall Field.
But when we see two wholly distinct teams on the field in the first quarter and the fourth quarter as we did Saturday, it's difficult to convincingly make that claim. Wisconsin came out of the gates and dominated Nebraska. Of course, there was the 14 points and a turnover by the Cornhuskers. Even on a per-play basis, though, the Badgers were significantly better to open the game, a trend we would see completely reversed over an even longer stretch in the second half:
The stretch beginning with play 37 actually starts in the second quarter, just as the Badgers stalled out prior to a Jack Russell missed field goal. For Nebraska, play 37 was a 20 yard pass to Kenny Bell with a 15-yard penalty tacked on, setting up Taylor Martinez's 38 yard touchdown run to bring the Huskers within 10 points. The rest was history.
Over the same 26 plays, the Badgers did manage to score following a Taylor Martinez fumble but also fumbled themselves and punted on four straight possessions in the fourth quarter. The Cornhuskers scored 20 points. Pretty simple stuff.
The Badgers, quite simply, lost this game because their offense couldn't do anything on first down. On 29 first downs, they gained just 97 yards -- 3.3 yards per play. A first down play is considered a success if it gains five yards. The Badgers did that seven times out of 29 attempts, a 24.1% rate.
Here's what Urban Meyer had to say about Nebraska's defense as quotes from around the Big 10 come in Tuesday:
Meyer has watched Pelini's defense for some time. Describes it as "extremely sound, hard to run your base stuff against."— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) October 2, 2012
Wisconsin's "base stuff", more or less, is to run the ball, usually up the gut. Wisconsin ran that base stuff 20 times on first downs. Base stuff gained 28 yards and managed three successes (15% rate). Base stuff left the Badgers facing 2nd-and-8 on average, even 3rd-and-8 on average.
There was no grind-it-out drive for the Badgers against Nebraska. Two of the touchdown drives were set up by turnovers, the others by long pass plays (a 54-yarder on the second play from scrimmage and a 29-yarder for the third touchdown, both to Jared Abbrederis).
The turnovers and big pass plays, in many situations, would make the lack of punch in the running game a point of concern for tape study as opposed to the reason for a loss. But you can't ever just stop in college football, and that's more or less what the Badgers did.
Where the Badgers leveled out, the Huskers just kept on pushing. The cause? It's convenient to blame the defense, but I really think it goes back to the running game and the stretch of four consecutive punts. The defense had barely any chance of rest thanks to three-and-outs and was forced to defend 45 plays in the second half. Wisconsin ran 23 in the half prior to its game-ending final drive.
Not that the defense was pristine, by any measure, allowing loads of big plays and eventually succumbing to Taylor Martinez's all-around game. But Nebraska was an offense that averaged at least 6.55 yards per play in its first four games; the Badgers held them to 5.87. The problem was the Badgers offense didn't give them nearly enough rest nor field position nor points to work with in the second half, and that's why the Huskers are 1-0 and the Badgers are 0-1.
Considering the turmoil the Badgers went through in the non-conference season -- changing quarterbacks, firing coaches, etc. -- things could have gone so much worse than a 30-27 loss at a ranked opponent to open the conference season. But it is impossible to shake off the things that continue to go wrong -- the running into walls, both literally and figuratively -- and unless a fundamental change occurs, they will continue to cast a shadow on this season.