Few, if any, saw this coming: Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17.
Yes, the oddsmakers gave Wisconsin more of an advantage than expected for a game involving undefeated teams, ranked seventh and eighth nationally. But a 31-point margin of victory for the No. 7 Badgers? Who could have imagined such a Big Ten debut for Nebraska?
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the Huskers’ lopsided loss was the continued problems on a defense that coordinator Carl Pelini said prior to spring practice had the potential to be the best during his time at Nebraska. “It’ll be interesting how it all comes together,” he said.
With All-America candidates at all three levels of the defense – tackle Jared Crick, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and linebacker Lavonte David – providing leadership, which “lends itself to good chemistry,” said Pelini, “we’re limitless in terms of how good we could be, I think.”
That was in early March, however. After the Wisconsin loss on the first day of October, he was asked if he had ever dealt with such uncertainty so far into a season. “At Nebraska? Yeah, it reminds me of year one, sad to say. But that’s what it reminds me of,” Pelini said.
His first season as Husker defensive coordinator was 2008, when Nebraska ranked 55th nationally in total defense, 80th in scoring defense, 82nd in pass efficiency defense and 89th in pass defense. Its strength, statistically, was rushing defense, ranking 21st.
Wisconsin was able to attack on the ground and through the air. Junior running back Montee Ball rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns, and senior quarterback Russell Wilson completed 14-of-20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns.
Even more to the point, Wilson completed 12-of-16 in the first half for 233 yards and both touchdowns. In the second half, he mostly handed off to Ball and James White.
Wilson, who was named the Davey O’Brien Quarterback of the Week for his efforts, was clearly in a rhythm, but “I would say his rhythm was because guys were running wide open,” Pelini said after the game. “I could have made some of those throws.”
“He’s a good quarterback; I’m not taking anything away from him,” Pelini said. “But a lot of quarterbacks could have made those throws. He was finding wide-open receivers. We weren’t executing.”
Nebraska’s secondary, and cornerback in particular, is unsettled. Dennard missed the first three games because of injury, and the Huskers’ young corners have struggled.
Josh Mitchell started at corner against Washington and wasn’t included on the travel roster for either Wyoming or Wisconsin, and Corey Cooper, who started opposite Dennard at Wyoming after being moved from safety to corner just five days earlier, didn’t play a down at Wisconsin.
“It was a different game plan,” coach Bo Pelini said Monday of Cooper’s not playing. “He’s coming and was available. We just didn’t go that way.”
Mitchell and Cooper are redshirted freshmen. Ciante Evans and Andrew Green, the others who have started at corner, are sophomores.
“But it’s not just the corners. It’s at the safety position, too,” Carl Pelini said after the game. “We’ve got a lot of issues we’ve got to address as a defense.”
Bo Pelini put a positive spin on the situation. The secondary is “not real far off,” he said. “There are some little things. To me, playing well comes down to the little things, the fine details. It’s about technique, fundamentals and your eyes. It’s about playing disciplined football. To play great defense, you need to hit on all cylinders, and we didn’t do that.”
Nebraska’s problems at Wisconsin weren’t just defense. After a quarter and a-half of solid play, the offense unraveled, with quarterback Taylor Martinez throwing interceptions on the final two possessions of the first half and the first possession of the second.
Wisconsin converted each of the three into touchdowns.
The Huskers were expected to experience growing pains (although not that severe) on offense, what with a new system and coordinator in Tim Beck. But the defense was supposed to be dependable if not dominating, potentially the best under the Pelinis.
And that would mean the best in nearly a decade.