LINCOLN — The moon was out and the Nebraska crowd, dressed in black, was bearing its teeth.
Wisconsin put a fist right through the night and the noise in its usual way: An old-fashioned power running game right into the Huskers’ living room. And the back doing the damage, Jonathan Taylor, is just a true freshman. Get used to him.
NU’s already used to the one-sided nature of this series. The No. 9 Badgers won their fifth straight over the Huskers, 38-17, rushing for 353 yards. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Taylor, a bull with quick feet and sprinter’s speed, gained 249 on his own, including a 75-yard touchdown in the first half.
But he and Wisconsin saved their final, most demoralizing work for their final three touchdown drives, all of which came after Nebraska tied the game at 17 with safety Aaron Williams’ pick-six.
Out of 30 plays, Wisconsin ran the ball 28 times for 177 yards. Badger backs broke Husker arm tackles and waited for big holes to open wide. Nothing fancy. Just fierce.
“It looked like we were holding it together for a while,” NU coach Mike Riley said. “But they’re persistent and they’re powerful. Big. Powerful.”
A minute later, Riley added the defense was occasionally “engulfed” by Wisconsin’s offensive line.
Said linebacker Luke Gifford: “We had a few spurts there where we missed a lot of tackles that matter. That’s tough.”
Off the cuff, NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco compared the experience to an airplane breaking apart in mid-air.
“You’re flying at 40,000 feet and even just a small pinhole crack in the window, it obviously causes a major problem in the cabin,” Diaco said. “So every little — every little — pressure point is going to get attacked and attacked with talent and ferocity.”
By game’s end, most of the 89,860 fans at Memorial Stadium had fled for the exits. They had fun for three quarters, hitting more than 100 decibels on the stadium’s new noise meter several times.
Never was it louder than Williams’ 14-yard interception return for a touchdown that finally got the Huskers (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) back to a tie game. The play represented a game-long climb for NU, which had again put itself in a hole when quarterback Tanner Lee threw his fourth pick-six of the season.
It came — just like the one against Northern Illinois — on the game’s opening drive, when Lee threw a swing pass to running back Devine Ozgibo. Lee threw the ball hard at Ozigbo’s back shoulder. The ball bounced off Ozigbo, into the air, and finally into the hands of UW linebacker Chris Orr, who returned the ball 78 yards for a touchdown.
Ozigbo said he should have turned around sooner. Riley agreed. But Wisconsin led 7-0.
That drive was the first of four straight NU drives that reached Badger territory, as the Huskers kept Wisconsin’s defense off balance with Ozigbo’s running (23 carries, 112 yards) and Lee’s passing off play-action fakes.
Just one problem: Nebraska didn’t score on any of those drives. Drew Brown missed a 33-yard field goal. The other two drives stalled just outside Brown’s field goal range. Riley chose to punt both times.
“We give them that touchdown and then don’t get that field goal, those parts in there, you just can’t be doing that against Wisconsin,” Riley said.
Still, Nebraska cut UW’s lead to 10-7 when Lee — who finished 16 of 32 for 262 yards — hit Stanley Morgan for an 80-yard touchdown. Morgan was running behind the Badgers’ zone defense on a deep crossing route, and once Morgan caught the ball, he bolted past a downfield block from Tyjon Lindsey to the end zone.
The Badgers (5-0, 2-0) answered on the first play of their next series. Taylor, on a basic inside zone play, hit the hole at full speed and shoved off a tackle attempt from Williams on his way to a 75-yard touchdown.
“He’s a thick kid, rocked up, and we knew he would be,” Gifford said of Taylor, who averaged 10 yards per carry.
Wisconsin led 17-10 at half. Williams stepped in front of Alex Hornibrook’s late throw with 10:38 left in the third quarter.
Nebraska recognized its three Heisman Trophy winners — Eric Crouch, Mike Rozier and Johnny Rodgers — all of whom were in attendance. So were most members of the 1997 Nebraska national title team, back in town — and in the stadium — for a reunion. The stage was Nebraska’s to seize.
Instead, Wisconsin stole the spotlight — looking a lot like Nebraska teams once did.
The Huskers’ defense stopped getting off blocks. They started to have more gap assignment errors. The same stuff that has happened in five straight Wisconsin wins over Nebraska. New year. Usual story.
“We had the momentum and that’s where we’ve got to step up and take that next step as a defense,” Gifford said. “It’s frustrating because we had it right there and felt like we could take it and put our foot down, and we didn’t get it done.”
Diaco said he wanted to assist the defense with more aggressive calls, since it was becoming clear that playing the Badgers straight up wasn’t going to work.
“That’s what we were trying to work towards — to give them an opportunity with a call, try to help with calls,” Diaco said. “It was just a hard half.”
Wisconsin is a hard team. It converted five of six third downs in the second half. Its defense, playing tougher against NU’s run, held the Huskers to 68 total yards. UW held the ball for just 16 more seconds than Nebraska in the first half. By game’s end, the gap was 13:22. Wisconsin had the ball for 13:16 of the fourth quarter. It didn’t throw the ball. It just ran and ran right into Nebraska’s defense.
“Mechanically, methodically, physically,” Riley said.
Asked when Nebraska might close the gap between it and Wisconsin — it appeared wider this season than it did in 2015 or 2016 — Riley said NU and UW don’t have to be “carbon copies,” but he likes the progress his team is making, even within this season.
Husker left guard Jerald Foster, standing up for his team and his offense, was more blunt about the comparison between the programs.
“I don’t want to be Wisconsin,” Foster said. “I’m Nebraska, if that’s simple enough to say. I don’t want to be them. I believe in what we have with our quarterback. He’s a gunslinger, so in the sense of him being able to do what he does, I don’t want us just to be running the ball the whole time. We have great backs, definitely. But being able to have two parts of the game — being able to run it and being able to pass it at the same time — is how you become an A-list team.”
Wisconsin is ranked in the Top 10. Ohio State will be, too, when it visits next week.
Nebraska is .500, scrambling to stay afloat in its own division.