MADISON — Wisconsin was in this position before. Two weeks ago, to be exact.
Tied against a top-10 opponent heading into an extra frame, with a two-score advantage wiped out when the Badgers couldn’t land a knockout punch earlier in the game.
Throughout the season, No. 11 Wisconsin has played in close contests. Six of the Badgers’ first seven games were decided by eight points or less.
Saturday night against the No. 7 Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Badgers wouldn’t let a second consecutive night game at Camp Randall Stadium fall through their hands. Call it moxie, resilience or that oh-so-popular buzzword “grit,” but UW fought through injuries, a lost lead and missed opportunities to defeat the Huskers 23-17 in another overtime thriller.
“We don’t flinch, because we’ve been there before,” inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “This isn’t anything new to us. Especially in the Big Ten, it’s going to be four quarters, and we’re built to stand four quarters. The experience in being in these close games really helps us out, that allows us to execute in crunch time.”
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) has been able to withstand adversity due to its depth on defense, but injuries have dwindled the depth chart to the point it could have significantly decreased the Badgers’ success. Most notably at inside linebacker, the UW already lost sophomore inside linebacker Chris Orr (right knee) against LSU for the rest of 2016, later compounded when redshirt junior Jack Cichy was announced out for the remainder of the season on Monday due to a torn pectoral muscle.
Insert Connelly and redshirt junior Leon Jacobs. Though the defense missed the energetic and highly productive Cichy, the two backers each recorded 11 tackles against a potent Nebraska offense.
“Collectively, we have a lot of linebackers in the rotation,” redshirt senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “We’re going to need all of them if we want to get to where we want to be.”
Connelly continued to be a “glue” guy, plugging a hole left due to injury and not allowing the defense to miss a beat. Like Cichy before him, he flew across the field to make plays.
His two tackles for loss came at critical moments. After Nebraska intercepted a Bart Houston pass, the Huskers drove down the field to the Wisconsin 21-yard line and attempted some trickery with a reverse to returning wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp. Connelly sniffed out their deception and dropped Westerkamp for a one-yard loss. That held the Huskers to a Drew Brown field goal to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
In overtime, Connelly tackled senior running back Terrell Newby behind the line of scrimmage for a one-yard loss, forcing a 3rd-and-long for a Nebraska offense that ended the game 9-of-18 in that category.
“During camp and all year, coaches always stress pursuit, pursuit to the ball, because you never know if the first guy is going to get them down or not,” said Connelly, who revealed there was a system for when he and Jacobs would switch into the game. “I think that kind of showed tonight the ability for our defense to pursue the ball.”
Jacobs, who’s bounced around in all three phases of the game, continued to show his versatility, unselfishness and willingness to step in where needed.
“Whether it was going to fullback and then going back to linebacker, he’s on a bunch of our special teams,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think he is an example of this group and that they will do anything they can to help this team be the best it can be.”
Offensively, Wisconsin mustered 337 yards on the evening, 223 on the ground. The power running game was stuffed often by a ready and talented Huskers defense, but Dare Ogunbowale asserted himself in a huge way.
The team captain and redshirt senior ran for a season-high 120 yards on 11 carries. Eight of those 11 runs came out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), and those gained 110 yards—including the eventual game-winning score.
“It’s great watching Dare,” redshirt freshman running back Bradrick Shaw said. “Team leader, excellent running back, and when he is doing good, the team does too.”
At halftime, Wisconsin led 10-7 despite gaining only 132 total yards. Despite four of its first five drives ending with three-and-outs, there were two explosive plays on offense that carried UW to its first score.
On Wisconsin’s second offensive series, quarterback Alex Hornibrook found tight end Troy Fumagalli for a 30-yard gain. The next play, Shaw took the handoff and sprinted 21 yards for a 7-0 lead.
Nebraska was given great field position in three drives in the first half, starting at its 40-yard line or better. Again, the Badgers’ defense proved effective despite a couple of hiccups that resulted in the Huskers’ first touchdown. Two of those three series ended with interceptions, one each from senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton and junior safety D’Cota Dixon, which halted further momentum for the Huskers.
Dixon’s pick off a deflected pass from redshirt junior defensive end Alec James led to an Andrew Endicott 44-yard field goal to make it a three-point advantage.
In the first offensive drive of the second half, Wisconsin drove 73 yards in 13 plays behind some impressive runs by redshirt senior Dare Ogunbowale. Hornibrook later found senior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright for a nine-yard touchdown to make it a 17-7 lead.
As seen in previous weeks, the Badgers built a deeper lead but couldn’t put the nail in the coffin. UW’s defense forced a three-and-out immediately after its second touchdown of the game, but the offense stalled out. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong guided his offense down the field on a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ended with his two-yard touchdown run to make it a three-point game.
On the whole, Wisconsin defended Nebraska’s offense well—one that came into the game averaging over 200 yards rushing and 236 passing. The Huskers rushed for 152 yards and gained only 153 through the air. Armstrong himself completed only 12 of 31 passes with the two interceptions.
But it was second-half turnovers by Wisconsin that gave life to Nebraska’s chances of upending UW. Interceptions by Hornibrook and redshirt senior Bart Houston in the second half—with both still switching series eight games into the season—allowed Nebraska to stay in the game and ultimately tie it at 17-17 with 3:43 remaining.
“The one today, I just need to have a plan in my head and execute it,” Hornibrook said. “I could’ve thrown it underneath instead of forcing it downfield—but I’m going to improve on today.”
Wisconsin drove to the Nebraska 26-yard line with under two minutes left, but Endicott’s 45-yard attempt sailed wide left, and after the defense held its ground... another missed opportunity.
The Badgers’ defense again bailed them out with energy in Nebraska’s favor, and a second overtime game under the lights of the Camp would be fought.
Instead of stalling like it had against Ohio State, the offensive ground game dictated the fifth quarter. Senior running back Corey Clement ran the ball three times for 14 yards, and the Badgers hit paydirt when Ogunbowale took the handoff 11 yards for the game-deciding score.
Endicott, however, missed the extra point, which could have been disastrous if Armstrong led the offense for another touchdown.
But again, the defense—Wisconsin’s rock and undoubted strength—knew it had to stymie the Huskers one last time.
“As a defense, that was kind of an opportunity to say, ‘We can really make an imprint right now—we can really show people what our defense is about.’ I would definitely think everyone was thinking that,” Connelly said. “The fact we knew we had to keep them out of the end zone was definitely in the back of our heads. We bowed up, and made the stop.”
Nebraska could only snap the four plays it was allotted in that extra frame as Wisconsin’s defense held its ground. On fourth down, Armstrong heaved up a prayer for wide receiver Stanley Moran, Jr. Dixon, who just narrowly missed a game-ending interception the play earlier, perfectly positioned himself to breakup the pass and secure the win.
“I was just reading the quarterback with two-man under, so I told Sojourn, ‘Trust the safeties, trust Leo and I. We will be over the top,’ and he threw it,” Dixon said. “I was just trying to make a play on the ball. Fortunately, it was in our favor and he didn’t catch it.”
The crowd erupted after the ball dropped incomplete in the end zone. Wisconsin secured the Freedom Trophy once again in another close win against Nebraska, but also defeated its third top-10 team this season. That has never been done in school history.
There’s still work to do, with a critical road game at Northwestern next week and three more conference games left after that. Injuries have taken a toll on the team, there are questions at the quarterback position and many players admitted they need to continue to improve to reach the team’s goals. Yet the Badgers have continued to fight through adversity all season.
“I think the one thing that sticks out is that they played for each other and guys got to step up,” Chryst said. “They find their way to step up and it doesn’t matter what happens—they keep playing the next play and I’m proud of that.”
[Update Dec. 11 — Corrected Dixon’s eligibility to junior. Apologies for the mistake.]