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Final take: Huskers ran out of gas

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[rl]For the second straight week Nebraska's defense played well enough to win for three quarters, but for the second straight week the Huskers failed to close the deal.
After limiting Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1) to just 248 yards on 61 plays through three quarters, the Badgers owned Nebraska (2-4, 0-2) in the fourth quarter for the tune of 221 yards on 23 plays. Wisconsin outscored NU 16-7 in the second half to win a critical Big Ten West showdown 23-21 on a 46 yard field goal from kicker Rafael Gaglianone with 4 seconds left. It's the fourth time this season Nebraska has lost a game on an opponent's final offensive snap.
"I don't think there's necessarily a common thread between every game," NU head coach Mike Riley said. "They're obviously pretty different. What we missed today was sustaining much offense for any period of time especially when we had some momentum, had the wind in the third quarter, which I was hoping we would capitalize on. I think that's a thread, and I think the other thing is down-the-field passing defense."
To be exact NU produced only 41 yards on 17 offensive plays in that third quarter. 13 of those 17 plays came on Wisconsin's side of the field, and NU failed to produce a single point with a strong wind at their back.
This put the Husker defense in a very tough spot where they were forced to hold serve against the Badgers. For three quarters they did just fine limiting UW to 248 yards on 61 plays, but Nebraska's undermanned front seven ran out of gas.
It was like Badger head coach Paul Chryst knew exactly what he was doing. He kept pounding NU with 1 and 2 yards runs early, and by the fourth quarter those turned into 6 to 8 yards gains. That's what happens when your offense fails to establish any rhythm on the other side.
This defense is not deep enough to hold up without any support from the offense. It happened last week at Illinois and it happened again Saturday. Chew on this number, 20 different players have started for NU on defense this season because of injuries. On Saturday three walk-ons started for NU on the front seven and Nebraska only consistently played six players on their front four.
With depth issues like this you aren't going to be able to beat Wisconsin unless your offense can do something on the other side.
"We struggled because we didn't have much success throwing the ball on third down to convert anything," Riley said. "We had some runs that we hit pretty well in the first half, but we didn't have any consistency running the ball. To give them credit, they've been a good defense. We just had to be better, and we weren't good enough to really sustain it, keep the football, and score some more points."
Now the Huskers are in a place they haven't been since 1959 sitting at 2-4. With just six games remaining NU has to go 4-2 over the final stretch to qualify for a bowl game.
I still believe this team is not that far off, and I still believe they can win any of their final six games with the exception of Michigan State. They need that one play that has seemingly been missing this season that can turn everything around. We thought they might have had it with Andy Janovich's 55 yard touchdown on Saturday. It's on to another week of enjoyable sports talk radio and message board banter around Nebraska.
"We're a team for a reason. We're a family," junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong said. "We've got to all stick in this together. We've said from day one, seasons are unexpected. You've got to expect the unexpected. We really didn't think that we would have a season like this. It's heartbreaking to look at it this way, but we've just got to stick together and drive on to next week. We're going to try to progress and improve."
Now on to the post game breakdown….
What I saw on Saturday
***Riley politely questioned the officiating on Saturday with how pass interference was called. It felt like Wisconsin's defensive backs got away with a ton of contact, where the Badgers got bailed on a questionable pass interference penalty on Byerson Cockrell that set up their first touchdown.
***You can argue Nebraska should've been more aggressive on their final three offensive plays, but after last week's debacle at Illinois Riley had to play that situation conservative. I do think some coaches would've elected to throw on that third-and-7. Last week's third down call was different because Illinois didn't have any timeouts and couldn't stop the clock.
***Having Vincent Valentine back made a huge difference for Nebraska's defensive line. Valentine finished with two tackles for loss, but he wasn't conditioned enough to give NU four solid quarters. This forced [db]Greg McMullen[/db] to play a ton inside.
***If anybody can figure out the running back rotation please let me know. Maybe the biggest surprise on Saturday was Imani Cross got back into the rotation for the first time since his fumble against Southern Miss. It was also surprising that Devine Ozigbo only got three carries on Saturday after leading the Huskers in rushing a week ago.
***Man this offense needs Jordan Westerkamp to get going again. The last two weeks he's had just three catches for 16 yards. Really all of the wide receivers have been quiet. Wisconsin's physicality gave NU problems on Saturday.
***I feel like Nebraska's defense hasn't forced a meaningful turnover since Nate Gerry's early interception against South Alabama. On Saturday they dropped what appeared to be at least four interceptions.
The final grades
Rushing offense: B-
Nebraska produced 202 rushing yards on the ground, but when it mattered they weren't consistent enough in the second half. Andy Janovich continues to be one of the bigger bright spots on this offense over the last three games. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
Passing offense: D-
Other than a 41 yard touchdown pass to Alonzo Moore, Armstrong's passing woes continued on Saturday. He finished 11-of-28 and failed to produce points in the third quarter when 13 of NU's 17 offensive snaps came inside Wisconsin's 50.
Rushing defense: B
For three quarters Nebraska made Wisconsin pretty one-dimensional. However, 89 of their 147 rushing yards came in the fourth quarter when it mattered. The Huskers did an excellent job though for most of the game bottling up Wisconsin's ground game.
Passing defense: F
Wisconsin is not a team that wants to rely on the pass, but with NU's secondary struggles it makes perfect sense why Joel Stave attempted 50 passes for 322 yards. He also caused three pass interference penalties, one that led to their first touchdown. The passing defense continues to be the biggest issue for the Huskers. NU's secondary is not built to win one-on-one coverage situations. They also didn't get a consistent pass rush in the fourth quarter to disrupt Stave. That goes back to lack of depth and being on the field for 23 plays that quarter.
Special teams: D+
Nebraska missed their only field goal attempt of the game and got absolutely nothing from their return game. Sam Foltz was one of the only bright spots. They needed more out of their special teams to win this game.
Sean Callahan can be reached at sean@huskeronline.com and he can be heard each day at 6:52 am and 5:05 pm on Big Red Radio 1110 KFAB in Omaha during the football season. He can also be seen on KETV Channel 7 TV in Omaha during the fall and each week he appears on NET's Big Red Wrap Tuesday's at 7 pm.
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