Oct. 2, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin wide receiver Jordan Fredrick drove back hard for the ball, tumbling to the turf with the catch. The initial spot would have given the Badgers a first down at midfield and kept alive their flickering hopes of a comeback against Nebraska.
A lot of things raced through Fredrick’s mind while the play was under video review and his worst fears were confirmed when the ball was spotted on the UW 49, short of a first down.
“There’s only so much you can control,’’ Fredrick said wistfully.
On fourth down, Danny O’Brien, who had been inserted into the game to run the two-minute offense, didn’t run the play that had been called -- a quarterback bootleg -- and that led to a mishandled exchange with tailback Montee Ball resulting in a fumble that was recovered by Nebraska, sealing UW’s fate in a game it twice led by 17 points.
“We just have to get that next inch,’’ O’Brien lamented.
That may have seemed miles away for some, but not for UW coach Bret Bielema, who voiced strong feelings on how far the Badgers have already come since the start of the season. That progress was particularly evident through the first 35 minutes Saturday night in Lincoln against a heavily-favored opponent that had been itching for a payback since an embarrassing loss in Madison last year.
“They did show me today that they have the ability to come into a hostile environment and play very, very well,’’ Bielema said. “But for us to get as far as we want to get, we have to be able to play a four quarter game. You can’t play three quarters or three and one-half quarters. We’re a good football team that just got beat by a better team at this point, on this day.
“But I’m not mad or upset or anything about their effort or their intensity or their preparation. Nothing is coming easy for us this year, that’s for sure. But I think they got better today.’’
That was echoed by Fredrick, a redshirt freshman from Madison Memorial High School, who had a season-high three catches against the Cornhuskers. “I definitely got better today -- that was the biggest thing for us,’’ he said. “You can learn a lot in a game like this. There were little miscues that were still costing us yards and still costing us points. We didn’t do enough to win, but we’ll learn and get better.’’
That learning curve has been accelerated for everyone, including quarterback Joel Stave, another redshirt freshman. Stave sparked the Badgers to a 20-10 halftime lead by completing 9-of-14 passes for 161 yards. His principle target was Jared Abbrederis, who had over 100 receiving yards for the second-consecutive game since returning from injury. He had 107 yards in the first half alone.
“That first half was a good glimpse of what we’ve got, but we have to make sure that we can do that for a full game,’’ said Abbrederis. “Hats off to them for shutting us down in that second half. They changed some of their defenses around and they had the safety over the top and the corner on me. Trying to get outside releases and things like that were more difficult.’’
With the fifth-largest crowd in Nebraska history -- 85,982, the 322nd consecutive sell-out since 1962 -- roaring at every critical juncture, Abbrederis conceded, “I just thought they had more energy than us in the second half. We can’t play two quarters and have two bad quarters. I thought we had a lot of explosive plays in the first half. But we just have to be able to keep drives alive on third down.’’
It’s no secret that the Badgers have struggled with third-and-short, and fourth-and-short conversions.
“We’ve improved in our short-yardage game, but obviously it’s still something we have to work on,’’ said center Travis Frederick. “We felt like we were getting to the point (in the first half against Nebraska) where we were playing Wisconsin football again. But that was not sustained.’’
On two of his final three snaps of the game, Stave got “rocked’’ -- his own word -- by Huskers defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, who knocked the wind out of him, and safety Daimion Stafford, who sacked him for a 16-yard loss. That in part led to the decision to play O’Brien on the last possession. Stave said afterward, “They don’t feel good when they happen (the hits), but I’m fine.’’
Like his teammates, he was encouraged by the first-half production. “We had a good play design for a lot of those,’’ he said of his deep ball throws to Abbrederis. “We’re confident that we have a good offensive scheme and it will work for us. Basically we just have to make sure that we finish. In the first half, we definitely took a step and played well. But, at the end of the day, we’ve got to finish it.’’
UW linebacker Chris Borland had nine tackles and two fumble recoveries and yet, he still felt like he could have done more. The Huskers fumbled six times overall but lost only two. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was twice the beneficiary of a lucky turf bounce; never more so than when the game was tied 27-27 and he recovered an Ameer Abdullah fumble early in the fourth quarter on the Nebraska 21.
That could have completely reversed the momentum had the Badgers recovered.
“They were a little loose with it (the ball) but unfortunately we couldn’t take complete advantage of it,’’ Borland said. “We did get a couple, but there were a couple that went their way. Sometimes that happens. Obviously, you have to play 60 minutes, and they made a lot more plays in the second half than we did, and that’s the big reason why we lost the game.’’
Borland was already setting his sights on the next challenge, Saturday’s home game against Illinois. “They’re a good team,’’ he said of Nebraska, “but we didn’t feel we played our best the entire game. Guys are angry. Guys are hurt. But we can’t pout about it.
“We have to shift our focus to Illinois.’’