This was one of those curse your head off, scream until your throat is dry, smash your Xbox controller type of games.
Wisconsin, coming off a perplexing 3-1 performance in the non-conference slate, looked as good as ever for much of this game. Joel Stave, a redshirt freshman starting only because the import transfer quarterback ahead of him couldn't seize hold of the job, was largely impressive on the biggest stage of his young career. In perhaps the most hostile environment he'll see this season, Stave finished 12-for-23 with 214 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. He exited late in the game after taking a hard blow to the chest, paving the way for that transfer quarterback, Danny O'Brien.
The transfer from Maryland performed about as well as you could expect, short of actually pulling out a win. O'Brien completed three of his four late passes, gaining 25 yards in the process. But after getting to the Badgers' 39-yard line, O'Brien faced a 3rd-and-11. Following a timeout, a 10-yard completion gave Wisconsin a 4th-and-1 from their 49-yard line.
In hindsight, any call naturally would've been better. But Montee Ball took the handoff from O'Brien intending to rush straight up the gut, but a resurgent second-half Nebraska defense popped the ball out of his hands before the 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist could even get going. Had Ball not fumbled, it seemed unlikely he would've gained any positive yardage. The lack of a sustained push from Wisconsin's offensive line harmed every effort at holding off Nebraska's comeback, and the Huskers walked away from the Memorial Stadium field with a 30-27 win.
Wisconsin fell to 3-2 while Nebraska sits mostly pretty in the Big Ten at 4-1.
Buoyed early by an impressive Stave and an apparently strong connection with wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers built a 14-3 lead in the first quarter. Abbrederis, with Stave's later struggles to fend off a reborn Huskers defense, was the only Wisconsin player to enjoy sustained success throughout the game. The junior receiver finished with seven catches for 142 yards and one touchdown.
The second half, as might have been expected from a Nebraska team that suffered from an oddly ineffective Taylor Martinez through the first two quarters, went almost entirely the Huskers' way. After defensive end David Gilbert -- benched for the first two snaps of the game after saying on Wednesday that Martinez' throwing motion made it seem like he was "skipping rocks" -- stripped the Nebraska quarterback, linebacker Chris Borland pounced on the ball for the fumble recovery. Borland, brilliant throughout the game and the undisputed defensive leader, finished with nine tackles (one for loss) and two fumble recoveries.
After the turnover, the Badgers began at the Huskers' 13-yard line and scored on a two-yard rush by Ball four plays later. That pushed the score to 27-10 with less than 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter, but it was the last comfortable margin Wisconsin held all night.
Nebraska found itself with a 3rd-and-6 at its own 27-yard line three players later, but a 20-yard completion plus an unnecessary roughness penalty on Wisconsin safety Michael Trotter gave the Huskers a big first down. On the next play, the mobile Martinez scampered 38 yards for a touchdown.
Leading 27-17, the Badgers went 3-and-out before a 10-play Huskers drive culminated with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Martinez to Kyler Reed. Suddenly the lead was 27-23, and Wisconsin had few answers in the midst of a rousing Nebraska comeback that had the fifth-largest crowd in Memorial Stadium history foaming at the mouth.
The rest, on this end, is painful to recap. Simply put, the Badgers didn't score another point while the Huskers wrapped a bow around their resounding comeback. Brett Maher sent a 38-yard field goal through the uprights with 55 seconds left in the third quarter to tie the game at 27-27, while a 41-yarder with 9:41 left in the 4th sealed the deal.
In summation, Wisconsin started fast and couldn't sustain it while Nebraska mounted a comeback many of us, honestly, should've seen coming. But Badger fans, befuddled and frustrated by the utterly crappy non-conference season, were thrilled just to have Stave throw impressive deep balls to Abbrederis while Ball appeared to rediscover his Heisman finalist form. But then the offensive line stopped pushing, Stave stopped producing in the face of a renewed Nebraska defense and Wisconsin's just offense just stopped moving the ball.
Now, despite the hot start, the Badgers still find themselves with a whole world of questions to answer. Why in the world can't this offense consistently move the ball? Is it Ball's fault, or the offensive line's? And defensively, could more of a pass rush take the load off Marcus Cromartie and a group of defensive backs that has hardly impressed this year?
A 2-3 Illinois team, coming off a 35-7 embarrassment at the hands of Penn State earlier on Saturday, comes to Camp Randall next Saturday. That could be viewed as a respite of sorts, though it can -- and should -- also be viewed as a must-win for this team. Who knows how realistic a goal the Big Ten Championship Game -- let alone the Rose Bowl -- remains, but Wisconsin would do well to adopt a win-out mentality.
A small bit of this game reminds me of the Big Ten opener Wisconsin dropped at Michigan State in 2010, a season that saw seven straight wins result in the program's first Rose Bowl berth since 2000. But things straight up clicked after that loss. This Badgers roster still seems to have the talent to make that happen, but it's hardly anything you'd put money on. For now, it will be one game at a time until a cloudy Big Ten picture clears up.