LINCOLN, Neb. — From an out-of-character defensive performance in the first half to Alex Hornibrook’s momentum-shifting pick-six after the break, Saturday’s showdown at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln didn’t remotely resemble the comfort of the University of Wisconsin’s first four victories this season.
Jonathan Taylor’s brilliant, 249-yard performance behind a hobbled offensive line and UW’s return to dominance on defense in the second half allowed the Badgers (5-0, 2-0) to pull away for a 38-17 victory, but reaching that conclusion in a hostile road environment was anything but simple.
“This is a tough place to play,” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said. “So coming out a little slow wasn’t that surprising. But I think we were able to slow down, get the confidence going and just cut it loose."
Ninth-ranked UW allowed 313 yards in the first half alone, more than in any other full game this season, but the Cornhuskers’ flurry of missed opportunities hindered their ability to take an early lead. Nebraska’s first four drives ended in Badgers territory with no points to show for it.
Cornhuskers wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El beat cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams with a double move on the second play from scrimmage, resulting in a 37-yard completion.
Three plays later, with Nebraska (3-3, 2-1) facing a third-and-2 on the UW 17-yard line, quarterback Tanner Lee fired a pass to the flat that bounced off running back Devine Ozigbo. Badgers inside linebacker Chris Orr caught the deflection on the run and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown.
Inside linebacker Ryan Connelly made a key third-down tackle on the next drive to thwart a wide receiver screen, forcing a punt at the Badgers’ 39-yard line, and Nebraska punted again from the UW 44 on its next possession.
Two impressive plays by Badgers cornerbacks prevented a potential Cornhuskers touchdown the next time out. Nick Nelson took a chance by jumping in front of a deep pass down the right sideline. It paid off, and he batted the pass away. Then, on third-and-12 from the UW 16, Carriere-Williams broke up a pass from JD Spielman in the back corner of the end zone.
Nebraska kicker Drew Brown followed that up by missing wide right on a 33-yard field goal attempt, another missed opportunity for the Cornhuskers to put points on the board.
They finally broke through with 1 minute, 20 seconds left in the first half when Lee connected with wide receiver Stanley Morgan for an 80-yard score to cut UW’s lead to 10-7. Lee lofted a pass just over the head of outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel at the Nebraska 45-yard line and Morgan ran untouched the rest of the way.
“That was one me,” Nelson said. "My guy caught the touchdown. … It was a deep over. I was supposed to take it."
Taylor responded by outrunning the Nebraska defense on a 75-yard touchdown run the very next play from scrimmage.
The Cornhuskers finished off the half with a field-goal drive, but the botched chances prior to their long touchdown pass left them down 17-10 despite moving the ball almost at will on the Badgers’ vaunted defense.
It was the Cornhuskers’ defense, though, that jump-started a once-promising second half for Nebraska. With the Badgers backed up on their own 12-yard line, quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a ball in the flat that was intercepted by safety Aaron Williams and returned 14 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 17.
“We knew that we had to get it going,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said. "I think everybody believed. We knew what we were capable of."
Like they did late in the first half, the Badgers answered right away. Rather than a one-play burst, however, UW put together one of the most impressive drives of its season — a 10-play, 93-yard march.
Hornibrook, who completed 9-of-17 passes for just 113 yards, connected with wide receiver Quintez Cephus on two third-down plays during the drive — a 31-yard gain to the Nebraska 24-yard line and a 5-yard touchdown that gave UW a 24-17 lead with 4:56 left in the third quarter.
Another 10-play drive, one that totaled 80 yards, ended with a 2-yard touchdown by Taylor, whose 249-yard, two-touchdown performance appears even more impressive when considering the state of the Badgers’ offensive line.
Left tackle Michael Deiter was still visibly battling an ankle injury he suffered three weeks ago at BYU, and sophomore Jason Erdmann played the entire second half at left guard in place of Jon Dietzen, who’s fought through multiple injuries in recent weeks. Right guard Beau Benzschawel even appeared a bit hobbled at one point.
UW added one more score with 2:40 remaining on a 1-yard plunge from Bradrick Shaw, a touchdown that was set up by a forced fumble from cornerback Derrick Tindal.