MADISON – It was another win with caveats.
The Wisconsin Badgers took care of winless Nebraska on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, 41-24, but UW remained on the lookout for its first truly dominant performance of 2018, and the team’s depleted secondary became a serious cause for concern.
Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) gouged Nebraska (0-5, 0-3) for big running plays and overcame absences in the secondary. But the Badgers but had loads of trouble containing playmaking quarterback Adrian Martinez (384 yards passing, 57 rushing, three all-purpose touchdowns), even though Jonathan Taylor likewise delivered another eye-popping effort.
Taylor, who has cleared 100 yards rushing in every game this season, ran straight up the middle and broke two tackles en route to a career-best 88-yard score with 13 minutes left to deliver perhaps the game’s dagger.
Taylor, who ran for 249 yards against Nebraska in 2017, finished with 221 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Badgers missing bodies in the secondary but find a way
Playing with a patchwork secondary, UW’s defense held Nebraska to just three points in the first half, even though Martinez was able to convert 13 of 22 passes. Cornerback Caesar Williams (leg) did not play, and his replacement – redshirt freshman Deron Harrell – left in the first half with an upper-body injury and did not return. Faion Hicks was also questionable heading into the game with a thumb injury.
It meant ample playing time for true freshman Rachad Wildgoose, with two true freshmen occasionally on the field when Donte Burton checked in. The defense also got only limited snaps from linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, still working his way back from a leg injury sustained three weeks ago.
BOX SCORE: Wisconsin 41, Nebraska 24
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Live scoreboard, box scores, conference standings
Then, the secondary took another hit when safety Scott Nelson was disqualified for targeting in the final moments of the third quarter. Nelson also will be ineligible to play in the first half next week at Michigan.
D’Cota Dixon, the most veteran staple of the safety unit, left the game with what looked like a right leg injury in the fourth quarter, and sophomore safety Eric Burrell received attention just a few plays later.
Nelson fell down on a 75-yard touchdown catch and run by JD Spielman in the first minute of the second half, and he yielded another 38-yard completion to Spielman on another Nebraska touchdown in the third quarter.
Spielman finished with nine catches, 209 yards and two touchdowns.
With the score 34-17 early in the fourth quarter, UW linebacker T.J. Edwards logged his second sack of the game to snuff out a drive and keep the Badgers ahead by three scores. Taylor took it from there with his 88-yard dash.
Not counting the knee taken just before the end of the first half, 10 of 11 Wisconsin drives ended in Nebraska territory, and the other one ended 2 yards shy of it.
Early points and a kicking milestone
For the first time all season, UW scored points on its opening drive, moving the ball down to the 12-yard line on a clock-chewing drive before settling for a 29-yard field goal from Rafael Gaglianone.
When Gaglianone’s 26-yarder made the score 6-0, he tied the school record for most career field goals, with 65, matching the tally by Todd Gregoire from 1984-’87.
A.J. Taylor reeled in a 26-yard pass that set up UW’s next scoring opportunity, capped when Taylor ran the ball in from 3 yards out for the score. Taylor was initially ruled down at the 1, but replay overturned the call and gave the Badgers a 13-3 edge.
Nebraska was able to collect some yardage, largely through the air. Running back Devine Ozigbo, the team’s leading rusher coming into the game with 17 carries for 170 yards and two touchdowns the week before against Purdue, had just one touch in the first half.
Stanley Morgan caught six passes for 73 yards in the first half alone. But one drive ended on the 14 with a Barret Pickering field goal to make it 6-3, and another died at the 37 with a turnover on downs.
Given the ball back with 2:13 to go, UW marched 63 yards and needed just 1:31 of that allotment, ending with a back-shoulder touchdown pass from Alex Hornibrook to Jake Ferguson. That spotted the Badgers a 20-3 lead that they took into the locker room.
Garrett Groshek’s 24-yard run on the drive was one of the game’s highlights. Nebraska safety Antonio Reed thought he had done enough to send Groshek to the ground with an explosive tackle, but Groshek kept his feet and gained another 7 yards.
Nebraska keeps showing signs of life
Spielman’s 75-yard catch and run over the middle gave the Huskers immediate points after halftime. Nelson stumbled and fell in pursuit, making it an easy score and bringing Nebraska to within 20-10 within the first 45 seconds of the third quarter.
But the Badgers responded to replenish the lead.
On a third down dropback near midfield, Hornibrook eluded would-be tackler Carlos Davis in the pocket and managed to shuffle a pass to Danny Davis, who made a sliding catch for the first down at the 27. Two plays later, Taylor’s 21-yard touchdown burst gave the Badgers a 27-10 lead.
The carry gave Taylor 100 yards rushing for the fifth consecutive game this season.
After Tyler Johnson forced a fumble recovered by Olive Sagapolu at the Cornhuskers 42, UW again wasted little time scoring, capped by an impressive 20-yard run from Taiwan Deal that made it 34-10.
It didn’t end there, though. Jake Stoll caught a touchdown pass on a great ball from a scrambling Martinez, and Martinez scored himself on a 7-yard scamper when he raced right past Dixon along the sideline to make it 41-24 with 9 minutes to play.
Groshek lost a fumble near midfield late in the fourth, but Nebraska turned the ball over on downs in UW territory.