The final numbers for the University of Wisconsin’s defense against Nebraska on Saturday night — 24 points and 518 yards allowed — won’t impress anyone, especially those accustomed to the Badgers’ dominance on that side of the ball in recent years.
With the group shorthanded in multiple areas, however, 16th-ranked UW (4-1, 2-0) did just enough against a talented Cornhuskers’ offense to allow for a comfortable, 41-24 victory at Camp Randall Stadium.
“A lot of guys played, and it wasn’t always pretty, but you appreciate them being ready and going,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "We needed a lot of guys, really in all areas, not just the back end. We played a number of guys, and that’s why I think it was a good team win."
UW cornerback Caesar Williams (left leg) missed Saturday’s game, and another key player at the same position, redshirt freshman Deron Harrell (head), left midway through the second quarter. That forced true freshman Rachad Wildgoose into meaningful snaps for the first time all season.
Defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (left leg) also suffered an injury near the end of the third quarter, around the time officials ejected safety Scott Nelson for targeting. Not to mention outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (right ankle) remained limited and didn’t start.
Still, the Badgers’ defense improved in some areas off its previous two performances against BYU and Iowa.
UW didn’t allow many big plays in the running game, and inside linebacker T.J. Edwards recorded two sacks of shifty freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez after the Badgers had recorded just three total through their first four games. They applied significantly more pressure than in recent weeks and also mostly neutralized Martinez as a runner.
It wasn’t all positive, of course. Huskers wide receiver JD Spielman, who finished with 209 yards on nine catches, broke free for a 75-yard touchdown after Nelson slipped in coverage downfield to begin the second half, cutting UW’s lead at the time to 20-10. Spielman’s 38-yard gain later in the quarter led to another score that kept Nebraska (0-5, 0-3) alive at 34-17. Martinez finished 24-of-42 passing for 384 yards and three total touchdowns.
“(We wanted to) just contain him the pocket,” UW outside linebacker Zack Baun said. "More of a crush-rush mentality rather than an up the field, outside edge rush because it opens up those B gaps. ... (Martinez) can really move. Just getting out of the pocket, it’s difficult to make those plays on the run, and he did a good job."
The Badgers did make some key stops Saturday.
Baun drew a holding call while applying pressure during Nebraska’s third drive, and even after Martinez connected with Stanley Morgan Jr. for a 25-yard gain on third down, the Badgers held the Huskers to only 3 points.
The next time out, which served as Wildgoose’s first action, Edwards sacked Martinez for a loss of five on the UW 38-yard line, and Nebraska failed to convert on fourth-and-11.
After Spielman’s long touchdown in the third quarter, outside linebacker Tyler Johnson forced Martinez to fumble, and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu recovered on the Badgers’ 41.
UW’s offense certainly helped matters by holding the ball for nearly 19 minutes in the first half, and running back Jonathan Taylor produced another outstanding day with 221 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. It marked Taylor’s second 200-yard game this season and fifth in 19 career games. The Badgers finished with 370 rushing yards on 48 attempts.
“Coach hit on us that we need to score more points on offense,” UW tight end Jake Ferguson said. "We can’t rely on the defense as much as we have in the past. The offense really needs to step it up, and I thought we really took the right steps this game."
The Badgers began the game with a 15-play drive in which they converted twice on short-yardage plays but ended with just 3 points.
Running back Garrett Groshek pushed ahead for 3 yards on fourth-and-1 from the Nebraska 42-yard line. Taylor then ripped off a 15-yard run on third-and-1, but the drive stalled and kicker Rafael Gaglianone converted from 30 yards out.
The Huskers stopped UW in the red zone again two drives later. The Badgers began with good field position at midfield after a poor punt and converted on third-and-5 when quarterback Alex Hornibrook found Ferguson for a 15-yard gain to the Nebraska 12.
Hornibrook’s third-down pass to the end zone sailed high, however, and Gaglianone made a 28-yard attempt, which tied Todd Gregoire’s school record of 65 career field goals.
UW moved down the field a bit more quickly its next time out. A.J. Taylor started the drive by beating his man on a quick slant and ran 26 yards to the Huskers’ 38. Danny Davis snatched a high pass near the sideline for a 16-yard gain a few players later, giving the Badgers first-and-goal on the 8, and Jonathan Taylor punched in a 3-yard touchdown to give UW a 13-3 advantage with 6:51 left in the second quarter.
A 24-yard Groshek run and a pass interference on Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson against Davis set up another score before halftime. Ferguson snagged a 14-yard pass in the end zone with 42 seconds left to extend the lead.
Taylor scored his second touchdown on a 21-yard carry early in the third quarter that gave the Badgers a 27-10 lead, and Taiwan Deal ran in another from 20 yards out after Johnson’s forced fumble.
Martinez’ 12-yard scoring toss to Jack Stoll with 4:20 left in the third quarter gave Nebraska a sliver of hope, but Taylor put the game out of reach with his third touchdown of the game — a career-best 88-yard burst up the middle — to extend the Badgers’ lead to 41-17 with 12:50 remaining.
“It was just a thing of sticking with the game plan, staying with the tracks, taking the five (yards), taking the three,” Taylor said. “Eventually, one is going to bust, and it’s just up to you then to make it count."
Martinez added a 7-yard touchdown run with 9:11 left, but there wasn’t time for the Huskers to mount a comeback.