Nebraska started Big Ten play Saturday with a come-from-behind 30-27 win over the Wisconsin Badgers, who thrashed the Cornhuskers 48-17 last year in Madison in Nebraska's first Big Ten game.
The Cornhuskers struggled to contain Montee Ball early and turned the ball over a couple of times, but kept their cool despite a 17-point deficit in the third quarter.
Nebraska's superior depth simply wore out Wisconsin on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Huskers dominated the second half in much the same way they did in last year’s Big Ten home-opening comeback win against Ohio State.
Now the Cornhuskers head to Columbus for a rematch with the Buckeyes coming off a big win.
Here's a look at how each of Nebraska's position units graded out on Saturday.
Taylor Martinez put together a consistent effort, although he was prone to mistakes. Despite two turnovers by the offense and falling behind by 17 points, Martinez kept his cool and led a couple long touchdown drives in the third quarter.
Martinez avoided interceptions again and threw for a respectable 181 yards and two touchdowns on 17-for-29 passing. He spread the ball around to eight receivers and running backs, which kept Wisconsin defensive backs and linebackers on their heels with no primary target to contain.
The bad version of Martinez showed up a few times, including three fumbles (only one of which was lost). However, he made up for those by throwing accurately on the two touchdown drives that turned the game around. Plus, he had 107 yards rushing, including a 38-yard touchdown run.
So Martinez grades out well for finishing well and leading his offense to victory. But he may need to be even better in Columbus next week.
Much like the rest of the Cornhuskers, Burkhead started slow and a lost fumble that led to the second Wisconsin touchdown in the first quarter. Burkhead could not break any tackles until the third quarter, which was a bit disappointing. However, once he did find his rhythm, it took more than one defender to bring him down.
Abdullah was limited by the offensive play-calling in the first quarter, but he began to find openings at the edges once the offense changed strategies.
His biggest play might have been a third-down conversion reception when he took a hard hit and held the ball to keep a touchdown drive alive. His explosiveness became apparent when Wisconsin’s defense became tired in the second half.
While Martinez may have been a bigger part of the ground game than Bo Pelini would have preferred, rushing for 263 yards against Wisconsin is still an impressive performance. When you can wear out the Wisconsin linebackers, it bodes well for the remainder of Big Ten season when the defenses may not be as stout as the Badgers'.
Nebraska rotated all of the receivers on its two-deep roster into the game and got them involved against the Badgers. They combined for 181 receiving yards, but there were some missed opportunities that looked like mistakes in running routes. In addition, the receivers were unable to break any plays for more than 30 yards.
Kenny Bell led the way, as usual, with four receptions for 57 yards. His biggest catch was a third-down conversion in the third quarter in which he held onto the reception despite a high hit that was whistled for a personal foul and could have knocked out a weaker player. Jamal Turner only had one reception, but it was for 27 yards and was the longest catch of the day.
Kyler Reed came off the bench and caught the only touchdown pass, snaring it over the middle while in double coverage. Considering that pass interference was called on the play, this was a great catch. Quincy Enunwa struggled and did not run good routes, but he did have 12 yards on two receptions.
One thing that helped this week was a lack of dropped passes. When Martinez was accurate, the ball was usually caught. If that continues, the Cornhuskers will remain hard to stop.
Although several tight ends played against Wisconsin, Ben Cotton was the only one who contributed statistically. (Kyler Reed is also usually listed as a tight end, but his contributions were covered on the previous slide). Cotton caught two passes for 36 yards and was wide open on both occasions.
When Cotton finds the open spot in the defense, it makes it too easy for Taylor Martinez to check down to him. Defenses can't afford to forget to cover Cotton.
He also did a nice job run-blocking most of the game, only getting pushed around by a couple of Wisconsin players in the first half. When the remainder of the line began to dominate in the second half, Cotton was right there with them, pushing Wisconsin backward.
Keeping Wisconsin contained
Early in the game, it looked like the offensive line might be a reason why Nebraska would fail to defeat the Badgers for a second straight win. However, the line overcame those early struggles to blow Wisconsin off the ball in the second half.
When a defense can't get a hand on a running back until three yards down the field, it becomes exceedingly difficult to stop an offense.
Center Justin Jackson almost caused a lost fumble on the center-quarterback exchange on the first play of the game, but he ended up playing well. Brent Qvale and Seung Hoon Choi also struggled early to keep Wisconsin’s pass-rushing defensive ends out of the backfield. But those problems went away in the second half.
The lack of penalties from this unit was impressive. There were no false starts or holding penalties, which made it easier to keep drives going once the offense collected itself in the second quarter.
This was a solid effort from this unit.
It becomes easy to forget the mistakes the defensive line made in the first half when looking at its dominance in the second half. Although Montee Ball was able to rush for three rushing touchdowns and 90 yards, the Cornhuskers stiffened in the second half to stop the Heisman contender.
Whenever anybody else, including James White, tried to run the ball, Nebraska stuffed them.
Eric Martin and Thad Randle struggled to get push into the backfield in the first half. The Wisconsin zone- blocking scheme did appear to confuse the defensive line early, but it outlasted the Wisconsin offensive line after failing to do so a season ago.
Led by Baker Steinkuhler, the defensive tackles began blowing through the center of the revamped Wisconsin offensive line in the second half. That gave Badgers QB Joel Stave little time to throw and Ball little room to run. When Ball bounced the ball outside, he was wrapped up by the linebackers.
This dominant effort would not have been possible without the performance of the line.
Big man on campus this week
Hands down, this was the best unit for the Cornhuskers in this win. Although the linebackers were limited in what they could do when the defensive line was getting pushed around in the first half, a few well-timed blitzes got the rest of the defense going in the first and second quarters.
Will Compton was the player of the game, racking up a bunch of tackles to go with some pass break-ups. When Nebraska was down 14-3 and had failed to stop Wisconsin in the first quarter, Compton got the defense started by breaking up three straight plays to give the ball back to Nebraska. About the only thing Compton did not do right was dropping an interception in the red zone near the end of the first half.
Sean Fisher also had several solid tackles on Montee Ball whenever he would try to bounce to the edges of the line. Alonzo Whaley saw more playing time than usual and proved he deserved it with his first sack against Joel Stave. This should continue to be the strength of the defense, and it is good to have that strength right in the center.
Although this is a low grade compared to every other unit, the defensive backfield was the only glaring weakness against Wisconsin. Jared Abbrederis might be one of the best receivers in the conference, but he usually does not have a lot of help. As a result, better defensive backfields double-team him and make it tough on Wisconsin.
But Nebraska could not even stop Abbrederis with double-teams. Andrew Green and Josh Mitchell were both beaten badly by Abbrederis on big plays, and that helped Wisconsin rack up 239 yards passing, even with no substantial running game. Although Green and Mitchell struggled, they made some plays in the in the second half when press coverage was sufficient.
Safeties P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford played slightly better, but Stafford did make a mistake on a completely unnecessary pass interference call that kept a second-quarter Wisconsin drive alive.
Nebraska was not gashed on defense, but the problems are still there for the Huskers against any team that can throw the ball with any consistency.
Big plays and the positive plays (including an 83-yard kickoff return after falling behind 14-0) made up for the mistakes in special teams. Despite some poor kick and punt returns, the field position was normally good thanks to the efforts of Brett Maher, who booted three big punts for an averaged of 47 yards.
Maher also hit 3-of-4 field-goal attempts, which was critical with the game being decided by only three points. With his only miss coming from more than 50 yards out, Nebraska can feel confident about Maher and the kicking game. He also only allowed one kick return, thanks to touchbacks on nearly every kickoff.
The return game had one up and a lot of downs. Ameer Abdullah broke the 83-yard return in the first quarter, but was dragged down after a few 10-yard kickoff returns early. The blocking will need to be better for Abdullah to average more yards on a regular basis.
In addition, Stanley Jean-Baptiste was called for a roughing-the-kicker penalty on a 4th-and-18 that kept a second-quarter drive alive for Wisconsin. That was the type of mistake that allowed Wisconsin to stay close, as it was clear by the end of the game that the Cornhuskers were the deeper and better team.
Team Nitrogen Wins!
There were problems and the defense looked frazzled until the third quarter, but the coaching staff made the right adjustments as the game wore on.
Wisconsin ran out of gas and Bo Pelini had his team ready to pounce when it mattered in the third quarter.
One great moment came after the roughing-the-kicker penalty kept a second-quarter Wisconsin drive alive, Pelini did not hesitate to call a timeout on the first third down following that penalty to give his defense a rest and inspire them to get a stop.
Anytime a team dominates like Nebraska did in the second half, it speaks to the coaching adjustments as well as the conditioning done in the spring and summer.
Pelini and his staff also did not overreact on the sideline to all the early mistakes. They had confidence in their young athletes and it paid off in the second half when the turnovers stopped.
It's hard to argue with the result, although the start must improve on the road.