It was a difficult road test for the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers against a raucous crowd and an energized Nebraska Cornhuskers squad on Saturday night.
Head coach Mike Riley’s offense gave Wisconsin’s defense all it could handle in the first half, with Nebraska even tying the game with under 11 minutes left in the third quarter due to a poorly-thrown pick-six by UW quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
Wisconsin, however, responded with 21 unanswered points, locked down on defense, and steamrolled its way with a dominant offensive ground game in a 38–17 victory at Memorial Stadium. In the process, the Badgers again won the Freedom Trophy, going undefeated against the Huskers since the trophy was introduced in 2014.
True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor rushed for 249 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, with the Badgers’ rushing attack gaining 353 yards on the evening.
Jonathan Taylor doing something only Ron Dayne had...yep— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) October 8, 2017
Nebraska's home win streak in night games...snapped
Tonight was fun. #OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/jPaa6eMJ11
Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee completed 16 of 32 passes for 262 yards with a touchdown and an interception on the evening. Wisconsin’s defense gave up 381 yards, including a 100-yard rusher, but held Nebraska to 68 total yards in the second half. That continues a trend seen in this first half of the 2017 season from defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s squad.
On the first series of the game, Nebraska took the ball and drove down the field emphatically, but Wisconsin’s defense turned it around. On a 3rd-and-2 from the Wisconsin 17-yard line Lee’s pass deflected up in the air off of running back Devine Ozigbo. Redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Chris Orr caught the ball and returned it 78 yards for a pick-six to give UW an early 7–0 lead.
Wisconsin’s first offensive possession was riddled with penalties, but the Badgers made it a two-score game with Rafael Gaglianone’s 37-yard field goal. UW was up 10–0.
It was a relatively quiet second quarter until the last 1:32. Lee found Stanley Morgan Jr., for an 80-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to three with 80 seconds left in the half.
Wisconsin answered quickly and decisively on the legs of Taylor. On a 1st-and-10, the freshman running back cut between center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel, then found daylight after outrunning the defense for a 75-yard touchdown to make it 17–7.
Taylor gained 144 yards on 10 carries through two quarters.
Wisconsin’s defense was in bend-but-don’t-break mode in the first half, to say the least. The Huskers’ offense drove down the field yet again to end the second quarter, with a Drew Brown 32-yard field goal making it 17–10 heading into halftime.
Nebraska gained 313 total yards in the first half (212 passing, 101 rushing) and converted five of 10 third-down attempts. Lee completed 12 of 24 passes for 212 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Ozigbo gained 96 yards on 17 carries.
UW defense has allowed 313 total yards through two quarters. Most it had allowed in a game this season was 304 in opener vs. Utah State.— Jim Polzin (@JimPolzinWSJ) October 8, 2017
The Huskers averaged 7.45 yards per play, but the Badgers had them beat at 8.14 yards per. Wisconsin registered 228 yards, including the long Taylor touchdown run.
After the teams exchanged punts with their first drives of the second half, Hornibrook made a critical mistake, trying to find Rachid Ibrahim out of the backfield. Aaron Williams read it all the way, taking it back for a 14-yard pick-six.
Yet Hornibrook and the Badgers’ offense answered.
A 10-play, 85-yard drive ate 5:42 of the clock as Taylor carried the ball—and the team on his back—for 51 yards on the series. Hornibrook and Quintez Cephus hooked up for two key third-down conversions. The first, a 31-yard reception on a 3rd-and-4 to get down to the Nebraska 24-yard ilne. The second, a five-yard touchdown pass on a 3rd-and-goal, put Wisconsin back up by seven with a 24–17 lead.
Cephus ended the game with four receptions for 68 yards, while Hornibrook finished 9-of-17 for 113 yards with the touchdown and interception.
Wisconsin extended the lead to two touchdowns after a punishing 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Taylor’s second touchdown of the evening. All snaps on that series were runs.
Taylor’s two-yard run gave UW a 31–17 lead with 9:08 left in the game.
The series after, a Derrick Tindal strip of Morgan on a second down led to a Wisconsin recovery by inside linebacker Ryan Connelly, further deflating any chances Nebraska would have of mounting a comeback.
Wisconsin stopped the ground game of Nebraska in the second half, holding Ozigbo to 16 yards on six carries. For the game, Ozigbo ran for 112 yards on 23 carries.
Another 10-play, all-rushing drive after the fumble chewed up 6:15 on the clock and ended with a Bradrick Shaw one-yard touchdown to cap Wisconsin’s scoring for the evening. A combination of Taylor, Shaw, and Ibrahim, along with an offensive line fully in control of the line of scrimmage, wore down Nebraska’s defense.
The final 22 plays for Wisconsin were all runs. Ibrahim, who played in place of the injured Chris James, ran for 51 yards on seven carries. Shaw rushed for 43 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown.
Wisconsin (5–0) will face Purdue (3–2) next Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium with a 2:30 kickoff.