MADISON, Wis. — A team is what it is after 10 games in a football season. It’s not changing its ways or patterns, even with a new starting quarterback.
So the fact alone that Nebraska lost again in painful fashion Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, 24-17 against Wisconsin in overtime, doesn’t require an abundance of analysis. A time to turn the page and work on 2024 is near.
Similarly, harsh truths about the Huskers’ habitual, long-term woes can’t be ignored just because a new coach got a bunch of players to believe in his system. The latest defeat extended Nebraska’s losing streak against Wisconsin to 10 games and its run of consecutive scoreless performances in overtime to seven.
“Angry, sad, disappointed, any other words you can think of,” safety Marques Buford said. “We worked so hard. They got the upper hand on us tonight.”
What is there to say? It’s the same story.
We do need to talk, however, about Nebraska’s game management at the end of regulation. For a second consecutive week, there was Chubba Purdy at quarterback, leading a drive in the final minutes with a chance to direct the Huskers to a win.
But that’s about where the similarities end between the late moments in Games 10 and 11 for Nebraska. Let’s refresh.
A week before the Huskers visited Madison, Purdy took the field at Memorial Stadium in the fourth quarter against Maryland, his first opportunity this year to play in a meaningful spot. Having dealt with a groin injury all season, the sophomore QB ran the scout-team offense for much of that week in practice.
The Huskers had thrown three interceptions and lost a fumble in the game. But Purdy responded surprisingly well. He moved the team 92 yards to the Maryland 5.
The game was tied at 10. A field goal could win it. Purdy had thrown one pass, a completion on that drive, before offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, with coach Matt Rhule’s backing, took a shot at the end zone on third-and-goal from the 7. Purdy was intercepted. The Terps took over and marched for the winning field goal.
Juxtapose that with Saturday night against the Badgers. Purdy led the Huskers from their 20 to the Wisconsin 26. Nebraska trailed 17-14. A field goal only could force overtime, a dicey proposition, especially on the road — and even more dicey at this venue. A touchdown could win it.
Purdy knew all week that he was set to start. He got reps every day in practice with the No. 1 offense. He answered the bell in Madison and had completed 15 of 20 passes when he took off for 22 yards to the Wisconsin 26. The Badgers called a timeout with 95 seconds to play.
Rhule had three timeouts in his pocket. Nebraska had played turnover-free football. Running back Emmett Johnson got 7 more yards on first down to the Wisconsin 19. Johnson got up with 86 seconds on the clock and carried for 1. The clock showed 45 seconds. Nebraska took its time before and after that second-down run and then used its first timeout with 20 seconds to play.
With a real opportunity to win, Rhule handled the spot like he was thinking about a field goal and OT. Why? He said he remembered the Maryland situation.
“We were going to take one shot at the end zone,” he said. “Kind of akin to last week, I felt good about the kick. I wanted to make sure (Tristan Alvano) got in range to make the kick, give (Purdy) a chance to take a shot at the end zone and go from there.
“Looking back, maybe we should have called that (timeout) earlier, so we had two shots at the end zone. But you know, a lot of people asked me why I didn’t just run the ball last week and kick it.”
His explanation feels a bit unsatisfying.
Once again, Nebraska falls short in OT loss to Wisconsin
The situations against Maryland and Wisconsin were far from the same. Better clock management and some tempo offensively could have allowed the Huskers to keep running the ball Saturday — and likely to take multiple shots at the end zone.
Sure, Purdy might have thrown an interception. And this time, a turnover would have resulted in a loss, not a chance for the defense to force OT. The Badgers might have sacked Purdy and turned the field goal into an adventure.
Also consider the possibility — before and after Johnson’s first-down run to the 19 — that if Nebraska stopped the clock and didn’t again move the sticks, even if Alvano made the field goal, the Huskers might leave too much time for Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai.
But the uninviting prospect of overtime in a hostile environment and Purdy’s solid performance against the Badgers suggest going with a more aggressive plan. After the first Nebraska timeout, Purdy ran for 6 yards to the 12. Rhule called another timeout with 13 seconds left and gave Purdy one shot at the game-winning TD. He overthrew Billy Kemp out of the end zone.
“Either our guy gets it, or no one gets it,” Purdy said of the play call.
Alvano connected from 30 yards to tie the score at 17. What happened next went as well as the past six overtime periods for the Huskers.
Nebraska, despite its history, could have won in overtime, yes. And then Rhule’s safe play in regulation would have looked better. Just like Purdy, a week earlier, could have completed that third-down throw against Maryland.
These questions about game management largely are driven by Nebraska’s failures.
Rhule made a good decision in a crucial, first-half moment by going on fourth-and-1 from the Wisconsin 33 as Nebraska led 14-0. The Badgers hit Johnson for a 1-yard loss. But Rhule showed faith in the Huskers.
Likewise, his choice to punt with seven minutes left, trailing 17-14 on fourth-and-2 from the Nebraska 40, showed trust in the defense to get a stop. It did.
Where’s that faith in Purdy and company to reach the end zone with 95 seconds left from the 26? Or from the 19 with 45 seconds left?
Nebraska has enough bad habits to break. It doesn’t need a new one that hampers its chances from the sideline.
And speaking of bad habits, here comes Iowa. Nebraska hasn’t beaten the Hawkeyes in Lincoln since 2011. Of course, the Huskers, at 5-6 and 3-5 in the Big Ten, need the Black Friday win to attain bowl eligibility.
Rhule said he looks forward to the chance to extend this season into December for the veteran Nebraska players who’ve endured too much heartbreak.
“Even if it doesn’t work out, I’m honored,” he said. “I’m honored to take the field with those seniors. These guys, they don’t quit. But they are hurting right now, physically and emotionally. That’s OK. It’s part of life. We have to learn to not shy away from that. Lean into it.”
Unless it pulls an upset, just one game remains and one chance to get better.
“You play for each other and understand that we all have limited days,” linebacker Nick Henrich said. “You’ve got to take advantage of every single day and fight for your brothers.”
The time to learn for these Huskers is perhaps running out.
(Top photo of Matt Rhule: Dan Sanger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)