Saturday evening’s game against No. 7 Nebraska found No. 11 Wisconsin playing a top-10 opponent for the fifth time this season, and for the second straight home game, the Badgers took a higher-ranked foe to overtime under the lights.
The good news: unlike two weeks ago against Ohio State, the outcome was a victory that kept the Badgers’ (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) hopes for a Big Ten West championship in sight. The bad news: this one was much closer than it ever should have been.
As was the case on the road last week against Iowa, it was a tale of two (mostly not great) quarterbacks. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook got the start, but redshirt senior Bart Houston provided relief in both halves after the offense struggled under the redshirt freshman. Neither looked particularly good and had some crucial (and nearly game-swinging turnovers). The defense once again bailed out an uneven performance from the other units.
Here are the grades:
With the exception of the first quarter drive that led to a 21-yard Bradrick Shaw touchdown, the offense sputtered in the first half under Hornibrook. Houston provided a spark mid-way through the second quarter, leading a drive that resulted in a field goal to put the Badgers up 10-3 at the half.
Hornibrook returned to start the second half looking back on form. Redshirt senior Dare Ogunbowale led the way on the first drive of the third quarter with several long runs before senior Rob Wheelwright hauled in a nine-yard pass from Hornibrook for a touchdown. The offense sputtered out again subsequently, and with the defense needing a breather after a Nebraska touchdown early in the fourth, Hornibrook airmailed an interception into no man’s land between three Cornhusker defenders. Houston replaced Hornibrook the following series and threw an even worse pick into double coverage.
The running game was the unit’s saving grace. Ogunbowale had one of the best games of his Badger career with 120 yards rushing (averaging nearly 11 yards per carry) and a touchdown in overtime that proved to be the difference. Senior Corey Clement struggled to get going most of the game, but broke a big run late in regulation to set up a possible go-ahead score, and had some critical carries in overtime to set up Ogunbowale’s score.
The defense continued to be lights-out in the first half against the Huskers. The line and linebackers got frequent penetration, but as has been the case all year, struggled to bring the quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, down. The defense had 10 pass breakups, including a Alec James tip at the line that led to an opportunistic D’Cota Dixon interception in the second quarter.
As was the case against Ohio State, the defense started to show cracks late in the second half when the UW offense failed to get it some breathing room. Nebraska started to move the ball late in the third quarter after outside linebacker T.J. Watt left with an injury. The linebacking corps struggled against the read option all game long, with Garret Dooley victimized early in the fourth on a Tommy Armstrong touchdown run.
The secondary was strong throughout, limiting Armstrong to 153 yards through the air with two interceptions and sealing the win with a couple of passes defended in overtime.
Special Teams: D
Senior placekicker Andrew Endicott missed an extra point (badly) in overtime that could have been devastating—this after missing the potential game=winning field goal with less than two minutes to go in regulation. He did hit a 44-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, which took some of the pressure off of the sputtering offense, but you have to wonder about his confidence going forward. True freshman Anthony Lotti did not look great, averaging 39.2 yards per punt, including a 25-yarder late in the second quarter that could have really hurt.
The coverage units did their jobs and kept the Cornhuskers’ return game fairly well in check.
The quarterback shuffling is not helping anyone. Houston finished the game, which begs the question of the starter going forward. The conservative play-calling on the final drive of regulation would have left plenty of time even if Endicott would have converted. The read option was giving the defense fits all night.
Let’s keep some perspective—this was a win against a top-10 Big Ten opponent. Had the offense converted a score when the Badgers were up 17-7 in the second half, we might be talking about this game much differently. The concerns coming out of this game are so visible—the (two) quarterback play, the out-of-nowhere kicker meltdown—that they obscure the fact that this is a pretty darned good Badger team. Hopefully, Paul Chryst and the coaching staff can make the necessary adjustments before next week’s feels-like-a-trap matchup in Evanston against Northwestern.