LINCOLN, Neb. — Coach Bret Bielema has been saying all season that he feels like he has three quarterbacks who can win games for the University of Wisconsin football team.
He went through two of them on Saturday night, but the plan didn’t work out in the Badgers’ 30-27 loss to No. 22 Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.
Redshirt freshman Joel Stave played a strong first half, helping UW jump to an early 20-3 lead, but the Badgers couldn’t hold the momentum in the second half and dropped their Big Ten Conference opener.
Bielema went to junior Danny O’Brien on the final series in a 2-minute situation. It was a decision Bielema made prior to the game with offensive coordinator Matt Canada, based on O’Brien performing well in those situations in practices.
“It’s been impressive for me, even going to the first game Joel started, in discussions with Matt, if we got ourselves into a true 2-minute situation, that Danny was going to be the guy,” Bielema said.
The Cornhuskers (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) scored 20 unanswered points, culminating in a 41-yard field goal by Brett Maher that gave them their first lead of the game with 9 minutes, 41 seconds remaining.
The Badgers (3-2, 0-1) had one last chance, with O’Brien taking over at his own 10-yard line, with 2:55 left.
He completed his first two passes and also got a big pass interference penalty against cornerback Mohammed Seisay, giving the Badgers a first down at their 40.
O’Brien’s knee touched on a low shotgun snap on second down, forcing a third-and-11. Then came a completion to Jordan Fredrick that was initially marked as a first down. The play was reviewed and spotted a yard short, bringing up fourth down.
That’s when confusion set in.
Tailback Montee Ball wasn’t expecting a handoff, thinking it was going to be a bootleg, so he ended up fumbling after getting the ball from O’Brien.
“It was designed, the quarterback was supposed to pull it and run around the other side, so I wasn’t expecting the ball at all,” Ball said.
“I wasn’t looking at the handoff at all. I’m looking to dive over the pile to make a great fake and apparently the ball was in my hands.”
Ball said the play called was “lonesome,” which is a naked bootleg by the quarterback.
O’Brien said the confusion because of the look he got from the defense. He saw the cornerback and the safety to the outside, so he didn’t think he could run the bootleg.
“The confusion was whether it was an automatic keep, or the option to keep,” O’Brien said. “I think we saw a few times earlier in the game, they were crashing down on it. ... I just saw the corner and a safety wide, looking at me. I thought we were going to run the run.”
Even so, O’Brien took full responsibility for the miscue.
“You can say anything you want but I think any time there is a miscommunication on that front, it falls on the quarterback,” he said. “I told Montee, I take 110 percent of the blame here.”
It was a disappointing end after a strong first half by the Badgers. Stave, making his first road start, completed 9 of 14 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown.
“I felt like we played well in the first half,” Stave said. “Under the circumstances, I thought I did all right, handling the noise and everything. I’ve got to make better decisions at points. There’s lot of plays I could have been better at.”
It was a familiar problem for the Badgers, who have struggled to put together four solid quarters in a game this season.
“They did show me today, they had the ability to come into a hostile environment and play very, very well,” Bielema said. “For us to get as far as we want to get, you have to be able to play four-quarter games, you can’t play three quarters and 31⁄2 quarters, it’s a four-quarter game.”
The defense did a nice job containing Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez for most of the first half. But he got loose in the second half, finishing with 107 rushing yards and a touchdown. He also threw for 181 yards and two scores.
UW defensive end David Gilbert sacked Martinez in the third quarter and forced a fumble, which was recovered by linebacker Chris Borland and led to Ball’s third touchdown run, a 2-yarder that gave UW a 27-10 lead.
But the Cornhuskers scored the game’s last 20 points, including a 38-yard touchdown run by Martinez on a quarterback draw and a 10-yard pass from Martinez to Kyler Reed — both in the third quarter.
Nebraska also got field goals of 38 and 41 yards by Brett Maher, while UW freshman Jack Russell missed an extra-point attempt, as well as a 41-yard field-goal attempt late in the first half.
“I think we’re a good football team, we just got beat by a better team, at this point, on this day,” Bielema said. “But I’m not mad or upset about their effort or their intensity, or their preparation.”
O’Brien’s first snap came on the final play of the previous series, when Stave took a hard hit on a sack. Stave also was called for intentional grounding on the play, but that had nothing to do with O’Brien being on the field at the end, Bielma said.
“As a competitor you want to be out on the field every play,” Stave said. “But it’s not my call. Just got to live with it.”
If the Badgers had converted the fourth-and-1, O’Brien liked their chances of winning the game.
“I had a lot of confidence,” he said. “I thought the attitude in the huddle was great. We we were excited in there and we got rolling a little bit.
Ball was clearly frustrated by the fumble at the end, but said he didn’t want to point a finger at O’Brien.
“Very frustrating, because it looks like I fumbled the football,” Ball said. “Pretty much, I’m not sitting here pointing the finger at all. We just can’t put ourself in that situation.”
It has been that kind of a season so far for the Badgers, who must regroup again going into next week’s home game against Illinois.
“Nothing’s coming easy for us this year, that’s for sure,” Bielema said. “We’re a team that has gotten better every week, I think they got better today. We just werent’y able to come out with a win and we can’t accept that as coaches or players.”