INDIANAPOLIS — In a game where Nebraska basically needed to score almost every possession to keep pace with Wisconsin, the Huskers showed in the second quarter Saturday night that they wasn't ready to do it.
After the Badgers grabbed a 21-10 lead, NU went punt, punt, fumble and punt — and when the Huskers looked up at the halftime scoreboard they were staring at a 42-10 deficit.
Not much Nebraska was going to be able to do from there in the Big Ten championship game.
“It's something that you just can't explain,” NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “It just snowballed on us and we couldn't stop it.”
The Nebraska offense was forced to play catch-up all game, no doubt messing with the game plan and putting quarterback Taylor Martinez into a constant state of harassment.
It was a turnover by NU on its first offensive snap, too, that helped lead to the destruction before a crowd of 41,260 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
After Wisconsin scored on its opening drive just two minutes into the game, Martinez was trying to hit Kenny Bell on a first-down throw from the Huskers' 25. Bell was off balance, the football skipped off his hands and Marcus Cromartie intercepted the pass and returned it 29 yards for a Badger touchdown.
Martinez followed with a highlight-reel 76-yard TD run on Nebraska's next series, and the Huskers drove down for a Brett Maher field goal to scratch back within 14-10. NU had first-and-10 at the Wisconsin 19 on the latter drive, but Martinez was sacked by Mike Taylor on first down and the Huskers couldn't fully take advantage of the red-zone opportunity.
The untimely futility then started after the Badgers took their 21-10 lead with 1:01 left in the first quarter.
The pressure on Martinez became regular as Wisconsin started to pin back its ears against an NU offensive line missing center Justin Jackson. Martinez was either sacked or had at least one negative rush on three of the next four series, and he lost a fumble on the lone one that was starting to show some promise (forced by David Gilbert, recovered by Taylor just across midfield).
That second-quarter sequence meant no help for the Husker defense, which desperately needed it.
“The defense was tired,” NU receiver Tim Marlowe said, “and then we went three-and-out and put them right back on the field.”
What was happening at the time, however, had a lot to do with Beck and the offense dialing up a little Plan B after the Badgers' stunning start.
The potential impact of having I-back Rex Burkhead was neutralized by the slow start. The senior didn't get his fourth carry until the Huskers already were behind 35-10.
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Wisconsin, meanwhile, was going after Martinez with nothing to lose, led by the pressure from Gilbert coming off the edge. Martinez was sacked six times overall.
“We didn't do a great job on the defensive ends,” NU assistant coach John Garrison said. “Our tackles struggled there. And obviously some of the pressure off the edge results then in the quarterback stepping up in the pocket into a bull rush.”
Martinez paid the price with a beating that included linebacker Chris Borland lifting him off the ground and body-slamming him in the third quarter. The junior declined an interview as he walked from the Husker locker room, tapping his head and saying he was hurting.
Understandable, and NU guard Spencer Long said a few minutes later that the offensive linemen knew they hadn't kept Martinez as clean as they would have liked.
“Once we got down, they knew we were going to start passing and that becomes a little harder when they know it's a pass situation, but that's not an excuse,” Long said. “We had to protect Taylor better.”
If Nebraska was going to have any chance of starting a second-half comeback, that too went out the window almost immediately when Martinez was intercepted by Devin Smith just three plays into the third quarter.
The offense did get put in a situation where it had to try to match scores, but Beck said that shouldn't have mattered.
“That's part of it, but every time we get the ball there's pressure on us,” he said. “We want to score. It doesn't make any difference what the score is, we've got to keep the football and we've got to move the football and move the chains and score points.”
NU came into the game leading the Big Ten in total offense (460.9 yards per game), rushing (257.2) and pass efficiency (146.4 rating), and was second in scoring (35.4 points a game). It managed 477 total yards Saturday but lost three turnovers and clearly didn't recover from the start.
“We've been down before, but it put us in some situations that are tough,” Garrison said. “We weren't successful in first and second down, and when it's third-and-7 or third-and-8 that's not good for us.”
Did Nebraska see some of it coming? Beck said he “wholeheartedly” thought the Huskers had a good week, and tight end Kyler Reed agreed.
“This was the most confident I've ever come into a game,” Reed said.
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