The Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 15-14, securing their sixth win of the season and becoming bowl-eligible.
While it appeared like a favorable game for Wisconsin, the Badgers never led in the game until their comeback drive late in the fourth quarter, finished by a Graham Mertz quarterback sneak to give them a 15-14 lead.
The game began as a defensive showdown as Wisconsin forced Nebraska into a punt on their first drive after a quick first down, which was followed by consecutive three-and-outs by both teams.
On its second drive, Wisconsin gained some offensive momentum, reaching the Nebraska 37-yard line, but a Graham Mertz intentional grounding penalty on third down after there was immediate pressure killed any chance of a scoring opportunity.
After a Nebraska punt, Wisconsin continued its formula of heavily running the football on early downs, but Graham Mertz converted a key 3rd & 6 to move the chains for Wisconsin.
However, three plays later, Mertz made a crucial mistake, throwing an interception to Malcolm Hartzog, which gave Nebraska good field position to begin their next drive.
The Cornhuskers were able to capitalize on the Mertz error, compiling an eight-play, 37-yard touchdown drive that finished with an 11-yard pass from Casey Thompson to top receiver Trey Palmer for the score.
Wisconsin had a strong response, continuing with their run-heavy approach on a 14-play, 54-yard drive that stalled with three straight incompletions from Mertz at the Nebraska 21-yard line, resulting in a 39-yard field goal attempt, which kicker Nate Van Zelst missed.
On the drive, Wisconsin ran the ball nine straight times, but elected to pass on four straight plays to end the drive, not including a play that involved offsetting penalties.
With the missed field goal, the Badgers entered the half scoreless and faced a 7-0 deficit.
To begin the second half, Wisconsin continued to run the football, but Graham Mertz failed to convert a 3rd & 4 opportunities, forcing a three-and-out.
The defense responded well, forcing a Cornhusker's three-and-out, which was capped by a Cedrick Dort pass-breakup on 3rd & 10.
Wisconsin mixed it up offensively on the ensuing drive, mixing in a Skyler Bell jet-sweep, as well as a heavy dosage of Chez Mellusi, that allowed the offense to move the ball well downfield.
Following a 20-yard Graham Mertz completion to Keontez Lewis, Wisconsin was in Nebraska territory, facing a 1st & 10 at the 30-yard line.
With a series of seven straight rushes, Wisconsin got to the Nebraska 1-yard line on 3rd & Goal, but a Jackson Acker false start backed the offense up five yards, where Graham Mertz threw an incompletion to force a field goal.
So, the Badgers were left with just three points on the promising drive and remained at a deficit, which was now 7-3.
However, Wisconsin faced bad news on the following drive, as Nick Herbig was disqualified for targeting on a hit to Casey Thompson, which kept the Badgers without him and Isaiah Mullens for the remainder of the game on the defensive line.
Nebraska capitalized on the momentum, compiling a nine-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that was aided by a John Torchio roughing the passer penalty, giving the Cornhuskers a 14-3 lead as the third quarter came to a close.
Wisconsin was able to respond, however, as they drove down the field with a seven-rush, two-pass, 72-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 10-yard completion from Mertz to Skyler Bell for the score.
But, the offense couldn’t convert the two-point conversion as Mertz’s pass fell incomplete, leaving the score at 14-9.
However, Nick Herbig, who was already disqualified, was ejected for celebrating the touchdown without a helmet, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and an ejection.
Nebraska was able to capitalize with one first down, but a Darryl Peterson sack killed their drive, forcing them to punt after a series of plays.
Wisconsin returned to the ground game with Braelon Allen, who was dropped for a loss of four yards on 2nd & 9, putting the Badgers in a tough position offensively. To make matters worse, Allen suffered another injury during the play and did not return to the game.
Mertz attempted to convert the third and long with a pass to Keontez Lewis, but the receiver could not get a foot inbounds after making the catch, forcing the Badgers to punt down five points with under five minutes remaining.
Andy Vujanovich delivered with a strong punt, forcing the Cornhuskers to start at their 11-yard line.
The trust in the defense was rewarded, however, as the Badgers forced a three-and-out, which was speared by a Rodas Johnson tackle-for-loss on first down.
Punting from deep in their territory, Nebraska punter Brian Buschini delivered the ball to the Wisconsin 41-yard line, to which Dean Engram returned for nine yards, giving the Badgers the ball at midfield with just over three minutes remaining.
With significant clock left, the Badgers didn’t change their approach, handing the ball off to Isaac Guerendo, who earned a first down on his second carry with a nice rush to the outside, utilizing his speed.
Then, one play later, the big play finally came for the Badgers, as Mertz found Guerendo as a receiver, connecting for 27 yards and giving the Badgers a 1st & Goal at the 7-yard line.
Two plays later, following a Chez Mellusi rush giving Wisconsin the ball at the 1-yard line, Graham Mertz scored via a quarterback sneak, providing the Badgers with their first lead of the game.
While they couldn't convert the two-point conversion, Wisconsin had a 15-14 lead with 28 seconds left.
On the game-ending drive, Keeanu Benton made a nice play on second down, sacking Casey Thompson as he tried to escape at the line of scrimmage, forcing Nebraska to call their final timeout with 14 seconds remaining.
While the Cornhuskers were able to get one first down, the offense couldn’t move after that and the Badgers survived to win 15-14, securing bowl eligibility, and elevating Jim Leonhard’s record to 4-2 as the interim head coach.
Now, the Badgers will finish the regular season with a home game against Minnesota next weekend, where they can look to finish the year strong and add to Jim Leonhard’s resume as the interim.