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Jim Polzin: Wisconsin football's offense owed the defense. It made good against Nebraska
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UW FOOTBALL | GAME 11

Jim Polzin: Wisconsin football's offense owed the defense. It made good against Nebraska

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polzin jump page photo 11-20

UW wide receiver Kendric Pryor scores on a 17-yard reception against Nebraska cornerback Braxton Clark in the third quarter.

Kendric Pryor couldn’t even bring himself to say it, a good teammate biting his tongue rather than pointing out the obvious.

The senior wide receiver for the University of Wisconsin football team was talking about the importance of players having each other’s backs, about one side of the ball needing to carry the load when the other is having an off day. That’s exactly what happened Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium, where a script was flipped in the No. 19 Badgers’ 35-28 win over Nebraska.

University of Wisconsin freshman tailback Braelon Allen speaks to the media about meeting former UW running back Melvin Gordon after the Badgers defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 35-28 on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

UW’s defense, one of the best in the country this season, wasn’t itself against the Cornhuskers. The good news for the Badgers (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten Conference) was the offense wasn’t itself, either, at least not the version that bumbled and stumbled its way through a significant portion of the season.

It was that group doing the heavy lifting this time. It was tailback Braelon Allen, tight end Jake Ferguson, Pryor and Co. stepping up when UW needed answers to remain in control of its fate in the Big Ten West Division.

“Our defense normally dominates, they’ve been dominating the whole season,” Pryor said. “This might be the first game where maybe the offense may have dominated a little bit more.”

That’s about as close as Pryor would get to saying something bad about a defense that deserved to be able to have a bad day after all it’s done for this team in 2021. Pryor caught himself again later when drifting back to talk about the defense. “I’m not even saying (they had) struggles,” he said. “I don’t want to even talk about it.”

No problem, because there were plenty of good things to say about an offense suddenly brimming with confidence. When the defense would come off the field after giving up a score, Pryor and others would let it know that everything was going to be OK. Quarterback Graham Mertz would get in the huddle, tell the 10 others to “keep your edge, stay focused,” and away they’d go.

Allen ran for a career-high 228 yards and three touchdowns, including one late in the game that gave UW the lead for good.

Pryor bounced back from a drop in the first quarter that cost the Badgers a first down inside the Nebraska 5 with a 17-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter and a 28-yard gain to move the chains on the next series.

Ferguson did his part with eight receptions for a career-high 92 yards.

The much-maligned offensive line opened holes and kept the pocket relatively clean for Mertz.

“Those guys were really excited to go out and make plays,” UW senior left tackle Tyler Beach said. “You could just kind of tell people were hungry in the huddle.”

The only time UW’s offense failed in the second half was when it lost the ball on downs in Nebraska territory. Points on that series would have made life considerably less difficult for the Badgers, but fullback John Chenal got stuffed on a fourth-and-1.

But UW scored touchdowns on its three other drives after halftime. Two of those scores came on the ensuing possession after the Huskers had tied the game.

Allen answered a 1-yard scoring run by Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez with a 3-yard touchdown run that completed a 75-yard drive and included explosive plays from both Pryor and Allen. After Nebraska tied the game at 28-28, Allen’s 53-yard burst down the sideline put UW back ahead with 3 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the game.

“It’s just huge for a team that you’re not letting the other team get momentum,” UW senior linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “Whatever momentum they have, you’re taking it right back and the offense did that time after time today.”

Another positive to emerge for UW was it responded while being pushed to the limit, a rarity during this seven-game winning streak. It hasn’t trailed by more than three points during the run and was never behind Saturday, but it was a one-score game from start to finish.

The Badgers’ average halftime lead the previous three games was 23 points; the game was tied at the break against the Huskers (3-8, 1-7), whose rotten record is deceiving because they have yet to lose by double digits this season despite a schedule that included Oklahoma, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State.

UW kept its poise in this tight game even though it wasn’t always pretty.

“There was a perseverance,” UW coach Paul Chryst said, “and I think that takes some toughness and some grit.”

Nebraska produced 351 yards through the air, beating UW over and over with crossing routes to either tight end Austin Allen or wide receiver Samori Toure, and Badgers cornerback Faion Hicks got away with pass interference on the Huskers’ final offensive play.

That raises red flags for a unit that may have to go against Ohio State’s explosive passing attack in two weeks.

But at least now the defense knows it has help. Chryst’s offense has found an identity and maybe even some swagger, looking more and more capable of being able to hold up its end of the bargain.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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