By Darren Ivy
Barry Alvarez and his 1966 Husker teammates are still the last Nebraska players to beat Wisconsin in Madison.
Alvarez, who went on to be a successful Badger coach and athletic director, was part of the Husker team that claimed a 31-3 victory that season. The 2021 version of the Huskers (38, 1-7) gave No. 15 Wisconsin (8-3, 6-2) all it could handle but lost 35-28 for the eighth straight time in the Freedom Trophy game. Nebraska fell to 1-9 against the Badgers since joining the Big Ten.
Coach Scott Frost dropped to 0-13 against ranked teams, and Nebraska has now lost 17 straight games against teams ranked in the AP top 25 — the longest such streak in school history.
“We keep putting ourselves in position against really good teams. We got to get it done,” Frost said.
Nebraska, which last won in the series 3027 in 2012, never led but tied the score at 7, 14, 21 and 28 and had four chances in the final minute to once again tie things at 35. A Wisconsin pass interference call moved to the ball to the 11-yard line. However, a holding penalty on NU tackle Bryce Benhart moved it back to the 21 with 30 second left. Two incompletions forced NU to call a timeout with 17 seconds left. Quarterback Adrian Martinez then missed Samori Toure setting up a fourth-and-20. After another time out, Nebraska threw to Zavier Betts, who appeared to be hit before the pass got there, but there were no flags.
“It was fourth-and-20, I was trying to give him a chance,” said Martinez, who finished 23 of 35 for 351 yards.
Frost, who dropped to 5-19 in one-score games at Nebraska, got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty arguing his case.
“I didn’t get an explanation and I was probably too angry to ask for one,” Frost said in his postgame press conference.
Once again, it was other miscues earlier in the game on special teams, costly penalties on offense at key times, missed opportunities to make big plays and turnovers that played a role in the eighth single-digit loss of the season. “We gotta be a little bit better and make those plays when it matters,” Frost said. “We haven’t won, that is the stat that matters most.” The only drives Nebraska didn’t answer directly after Badger scores were when Wisconsin went up 14-7 and NU was stopped on downs inside the 5, and when the Badgers went up 28-21 late in the third quarter.
NU started the latter drive on its own 6-yard line after Alante Brown muffed the fair catch on the kick off. As Nebraska was trying to drive early in the fourth quarter, Martinez made an ill-timed pass right to Wisconsin’s Colin Wilder for his second interception of the game. His first interception on the first drive of the second half led to the Badgers’ go-ahead 21-14 score at the 11:35 mark of the third quarter.
After the second interception, the NU defense held on downs to give the offense another chance, which it converted into a 3-yard touchdown run by Marvin Scott III to tie things at 28 with just more than six minutes left.
A key play on the drive was a fourth-and-2 conversion when Martinez scrambled before heaving a 38-yard pass under duress to tight end Austin Allen. The catch gave Allen 143 receiving yards on seven catches on the day, helping him set an NU single-game mark for yardage and single-season record for catches by a tight end with 36. Martinez also became the all-time total yardage leader (10,792) at Nebraska on the drive, moving past former quarterback Tommy Armstrong (10,760 from 2013-16).
Wisconsin also answered after every Nebraska scoring drive except its missed field goal in the second quarter.
On the late Wisconsin fourth-quarter drive, freshman Braelon Allen, who rushed 22 times for 228 yards, gouged the NU defense on a 53-yard touchdown run to make it 35-28 with 3:50 left.
NU, which put up 87 yards more of total offense (452 total) than any other team against Wisconsin this season, was confident as it went out.
“The guys believed they were going to win today,” Frost said. “I told them before that last drive, we’re going to go for two when we score and we were heading in that direction.” Wisconsin helped by kicking the ball out of bounds to give NU the ball at the 35. Brody Belt made a first down catch, and then Toure caught one to the Wisconsin 35-yard line. Toure, who had seven catches for 113 yards to tie Stanley Morgan for the most 100-yard receiving games in a season with five, then picked up another first-down grab to the 23. There wasn’t a comeback on this particular day as the opening play came back to bite NU on the scoreboard.
Wisconsin got the ball first, and Stephan Bracey broke several tackles on the return and went 91 yards for a score, giving the Badgers a 7-0 advantage just 13 seconds in.
“You can’t start a game with a kick return,” Frost said.
NU, which had let go of four offensive coaches during its bye week, responded. Toure caught a 43-yard pass from Martinez on the first play of NU’s first drive. Toure caught a 27-yard pass to set up first and goal at the 8. Markese Stepp, who was filling in for the injured Rahmir Johnson, then gained seven yards and one yard to score an answering touchdown and make it 7-7 with 12:41 on the clock.
“There was aggressive playcalling, starting with the first play of the game,” Martinez said. “That trend continued through the game.”
On the first Wisconsin offensive series, Nebraska stopped the Badgers on downs. NU looked ready to take its first lead, but Omar Manning went the wrong way on a play, the snap hit him in the helmet and NU took a loss of five yards. The blunder ended up stalling the drive as Martinez was sacked on third-and long, and the Huskers had to punt. NU had a chance to down the punt inside the 5 but failed to do so, and a couple plays later Wisconsin was able to break a 71-yard touchdown run by Allen, who went over 100 yards for the seventh-straight game on the play, enabling the Badgers to regain a 14-7 lead with 1:59 left in the first quarter.
Nebraska, which had 157 yards of offense in the first quarter, again moved the ball on the Badger defense that had been giving up only 195 yards a game during its recent six-game winning streak. However, Nebraska failed to gain two yards on three plays after getting inside the 10 as Stepp gained one yard and lost one on second and third down, and Martinez misfired to Allen on fourth down.
After a Wisconsin three-and-out, Toure caught a 4-yard slant pass to tie things at 14 with 6:35 left in the half. After the break and Martinez’s first interception, it was Wisconsin’s turn as Kendric Pryor hauled in a 17-yard pass to put the Badgers up 21-14. The Huskers answered as Martinez completed 5 of 6 passes for 63 yards and then scored his 35th career rushing touchdown from one yard out to tie things at 21 with 6:24 left in the third quarter.
The Nebraska defense, which was playing without senior linebacker JoJo Domann for the first time this season, surrendered several big plays on the ensuing Badger drive. On third-and-goal from the 3, Allen ran over NU’s Luke Reimer at the goal line to give his team the 28-21 lead with 1:30 left in the third.