LINCOLN — They knelt together, two men exhausted, their arms leaning on a weight machine painted red. Just feet away from the media podium, Nebraska’s Garrett Nelson and Travis Vokolek talked quietly, shook heads and compared notes on a game, a season and an era where success has remained stubbornly beyond their reach.
The Huskers’ 15-14 loss to the weakest Wisconsin team in decades had a familiar script. On Senior Day, NU played close, lost late and, when looking for a culprit, could ultimately point to its inability to control the line of scrimmage.
But Saturday felt different, too. An intimate wound. A broken marriage is looking for one scrapbook moment and realizing even a chance at brief joy — a Paris, a Tuscany, ending a 10-year drought to Wisconsin! — has passed by.
How’d the Huskers lose a 14-3 fourth quarter lead? How’d Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, completing 8 of 18 passes, finally hit two that mattered late? How’d the Huskers run 13 fourth quarter plays and gain 27 yards?
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“Guys are emotional, upset,” Vokolek said. The senior tight end’s face — with smeared eye black and red eyes — bore the pain. “It – it just sucks because it’s not a very good way to go out for all the seniors.”
“You don’t get your way all the time,” Nelson said. “With life - or with football.”
Even when the Badgers — who fired head coach Paul Chryst six weeks ago — seemed to be a willing partner. With a clear advantage in the trenches, Wisconsin threw its way out of a scoring drive in the first quarter, committed two personal fouls on Nebraska’s second touchdown drive, and, in the first half, watched Mertz throw deep into a 24-mile-an-hour wind when he had a receiver open underneath. That second quarter toss hit a wall of breeze and dropped right into NU cornerback Malcolm Hartzog’s hands for an interception.
The Huskers (3-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten) turned that pick into a 37-yard touchdown drive. The bundled-up fans at Memorial Stadium — announced as 86,068, but smaller by at least 25,000 — were warmed in the chilled environment. Nebraska led 7-0 after 30 minutes when Wisconsin’s 14-play, 6½-minute drive ended in a missed field goal just before half.
NU pushed the advantage to 14-3 late in the third quarter, using the wind to produce a 79-yard drive and Thompson’s second touchdown pass to receiver Trey Palmer. Thompson, playing for the first time in November, still had lingering numbness in his right hand but managed the game well and even finished as Nebraska’s top rusher with 33 scrambling yards.
That’s what the Husker backs gained over 17 carries. The Badgers (6-5, 4-4) had nine tackles for loss.
“Running laterally against teams like that is not going to be good,” Thompson said, hinting that NU tailback Anthony Grant did that too often. “You could tell the Wisconsin players are definitely strong and had a lot of size on them. So it was hard for him to run through those arm tackles.”
Interim head coach Mickey Joseph said the run game “just hasn’t been there,” which is true. NU finished below 100 yards rushing for the fourth time in six games. In Big Ten play, Nebraska is down to 95.6 rushing yards per game.
“Been having trouble with it, week in, week out,” Joseph said. “Gotta play with the guys that we have. Can’t trade ‘em.”
Wisconsin, meanwhile, toted the ball 52 times for 4.5 yards per carry, an average just smaller than what NU has allowed during the season. But the Badgers have girth-y linemen, three gifted tailbacks of different sizes and speeds, full-blocking tight ends and fullbacks, all lining up for repeated mid-field car crashes. Collectively, they take their toll over four quarters.
“When you’re on the field for that long, obviously those heavy guys start to lean on ya a little bit,” Nelson said. “They run the ball a lot. They lean on ya.”
A bunch of runs can also set up important passes. Mertz threw both a nifty 11-yard touchdown to Skyler Bell — which cut NU’s lead to 14-9 — and a 27-yard wheel route to Isaac Guerendo to set up the final score. Guerendo beat backup nickel Javin Wright, in the game because the starting nickel, Isaac Gifford, had moved to safety when Marques Buford suffered an injury. The play put Wisconsin at the NU 6, and Mertz himself sneaked in from two yards out three plays later.
Thompson had to drive into the teeth of the wind, over 28 seconds, to get in position for a game-winning field goal. NU fell way short.
Wisconsin celebrated with unusual (for Wisconsin) zeal, like it had pulled off a great escape. Nebraska, losing for the fifth straight time — and third straight time at home — took it hard.
“This is a tough one, to be in the control of the game like that,” interim head coach Mickey Joseph said. “I’ve got to do a better job of getting them to close people out. And that’s going to happen with maturity…take your hat off to these kids. Good character group. A team that’s not going to quit.”
Nebraska’s a better football team, Joseph said, than when he met it last December as a new receivers coach. One where players didn’t blame each other early in the season, when the defense gave up 45 points to Georgia Southern, nor now, when the offense is mired a funk unseen by Husker fans in decades.
“I know what (the defense) is thinking: ‘We’ve got to hold them,’” Joseph said. “And the offense is thinking like this: ‘We’ve got to score 16 points.’ They don’t play the pointing game. We’re family. We’re going to stick together and we’re going to fight through this.”
Football is unique in the sense that it takes, over the course of three hours, 50-60 players and 10-to-15 coaches to secure a win at the collegiate level. The sport exposes weakness more than strength, so each team is comprised of dozens of players who could win games almost anywhere while losing games at a specific somewhere — in this case, Nebraska. Those are typically the players who have to explain the losing, too.
Vokolek and Nelson, due for a NFL training camp at some point, are two such players, exhausted leaders, with one data point left at Iowa.
“There’s a lot outside of your control, that I can’t control, or we can control, gotta realize that,” Nelson said. “The things you can, you focus on those, and how you get better at those, and master those. That’s kind of where my brain goes to.”
The rest, for Nelson and other Huskers, is just painful to examine.