Shatel: Wisconsin hands Nebraska a reality check in games Huskers could've won

The Huskers were left with a sour feeling after losing to Wisconsin.

LINCOLN — And just like that, 1997 became 2017.

That was quite a tribute to the ’97 national champions on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. With the game tied at 17, they put their heads down and got to work.

Ten plays, eight rushes, 93 yards, touchdown.

Ten plays, 10 rushes, 80 yards, touchdown.

Ten plays, 10 rushes, 40 yards, touchdown.

Ballgame.

Oh, wait. That was Wisconsin.

In the end, it was 38-17 Badgers. It wasn’t that simple. And yet it was really that elementary.

Nebraska was in this game. It was tied at 17, with 10:43 left in the third quarter. Way too much time left. But that was a good thing. NU had momentum. The crowd was rocking under the Saturday night lights.

Wisconsin looked beatable, and that’s a silly term, but in this case it was true. The Badgers were not impressive. They were sloppy. Their defense had allowed NU to set up shop on the Wisconsin side of the field. This was the average Wisconsin.

This was a game Nebraska, even with all its issues, could dream of winning. It was 17-17, and Tanner Lee had not been sacked. The defense had just returned an interception for a touchdown.

You could see victory, 4-2 and first place in the Big Ten West. And yes, Urban Meyer cuts into view for one week, but this was a season that suddenly could be a lot more interesting.

And as Aaron Williams pranced into the end zone with an interception, you could make the case that some of that 1997 magic dust was rubbing off on 2017. Perhaps there was some inspiration going on, and it would be one of those nights to remember.

Neither of these two teams was particularly pretty or efficient, but, darn it, somebody had to win it. Why not Nebraska?

Then reality showed up.

Reality is 5-foot-11 and tips the scale at 214. It glides to the hole, but it can take a hit and run through it. It can make you miss and cut outside and turn on the jets and give you a nice view of the No. 23.

Reality was Wisconsin freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who took over the game midway through the third quarter.

Reality had a sidekick: the Wisconsin offensive line, which kicked into overdrive.

With the score knotted at 17 and Old Mo checking out the Nebraska sideline, Taylor turned the clock back.

Back to Marcus Dupree. Mike Rozier. Ahman Green. To the grand old days of the Big Eight, when running backs took your breath away.

Taylor had 12 carries for 149 yards when Wisconsin took over on its 7-yard-line with 10:38 left in the third quarter.

As the Badgers grinded out 21 points on 28 rushes over the next three drives, Taylor had 13 of them for 100 yards exactly.

It was reminiscent of 1997, and I don’t say that lightly. There was always a time during that season when Nebraska kicked into a higher gear, when the men were separated from the boys. And I say that with all due respect to a Husker team that played its heart out Saturday night.

Here in 2017, Wisconsin is that team. Again, the Badgers don’t always look like much. If they could put it together for four quarters, they’d be a load for Penn State or any of them. But they haven’t figured that out yet.

It looks like a tease, until it’s not. It’s just this Badger team’s personality. When it’s time for business, it’s time for business.

And when Wisconsin got down to business, we learned what we probably already assumed, if not knew.

Wisconsin is at a different level from Nebraska. Different in culture, different in physicality, different in program.

That’s the harsh reality from Saturday night, a game when there wasn’t a lot of blame on the NU side.

Not really. I mean, the interception that glanced off Devine Ozigbo’s helmet was a gift. A crazy play. NU coach Mike Riley said they always complete that pass in practice. He called it a “pretty ridiculous play.”

Lee played well at times. He was good under pressure, stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush, dancing around with nimble feet. For all the worry about him getting hammered, the offensive line did a nice job for the most part.

So did Ozigbo, with a career high 112 yards rushing and virtually no backup. Ozigbo was going to be the man in this game. He ran hard, got bumped around in the Wisconsin grinder. It was a violent game.

“We ran OK,” Riley said.

I don’t know if it was OK or better than OK or pretty good at times. What I know is that against Wisconsin, it’s rarely good enough.

The message from this one was that Wisconsin is still better than Nebraska, still gets it done, still at a higher level.

But there’s a message inside that message, too. There’s no shortage of folks, in the media, too, who want Nebraska to return to that ’90s physicality. The run game. The Pipeline. The culture. The whole thing.

And you can say you want to do that. And you can try to emphasize it. Nebraska didn’t have the ball a lot in the second half. Most of the night, the Huskers tried to run. The game plan was to protect Lee, and do that with the run game.

The problem with trying to fight fire with fire with Wisconsin is that the Badgers do it better than almost anyone. It’s a way of life. They practice physicality, preach it, live it.

Nebraska hasn’t done that in a long time, not since the West Coast offense and spreads, etc., moved to town.

Meanwhile, the Blackshirts fought hard. They kept the Badgers’ offense out of the end zone until that third quarter. And they made the play that tied the game.

But if you’re going to beat Wisconsin for four quarters, you have to match their game. Good luck.

“They’re persistent,” Riley said. “Powerful.”

There wasn’t a lot of shame in this one. Wisconsin is just better. The interception hurt, but the game was tied at 17 and NU had the stadium and momentum.

NU has good backs in Ozigbo, Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon. Wisconsin found a great one in Taylor. Is there anyone like him in Calibraska?

When can you put a great back into a culture of physical line play and toughness?

You saw it on the video screen on Saturday night. And then the time tunnel sent the travelers back to 2017.

How would you grade Nebraska's overall performance against Wisconsin?

The Huskers fought back to tie the game at 17 but ultimately fell 38-17 to Wisconsin. How would you grade Nebraska's overall performance?

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