When Nebraska finally pulled even with Wisconsin on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, it felt as though the home team might be primed for a breakthrough moment.
Instead, the ninth-ranked team in the country delivered a powerful statement of its own.
The Badgers ran 28 times over a trio of 10-play, second-half scoring marches to put away the Huskers in a 38-17 win that dropped NU to 3-3 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play, and put UW (5-0, 2-0) firmly in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West race.
"As you watch the game from the boundary there, it looked like we were holding it together OK for a time," said head coach Mike Riley, whose team lost here at night for the first time since 2008. "But they're persistent and they're big and powerful. We knew all of those things. I think that probably was the key moment in the game was their response to us making the play to the game."
NU junior safety Aaron Williams tied the game at 17 early in the third quarter when he intercepted UW sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook and glided 14 yards into the end zone, sending a shock wave through an announced crowd of 89,890 at Memorial Stadium.
"That's the moment when we've got to step up and that's where we've got to take that next step as a defense," Huskers outside linebacker Luke Gifford said, "because we had it right there and we felt like we could take it and really put our foot down."
Instead, the Badgers steadily wore the Huskers down.
Paul Chryst's team ran on all but two snaps over three straight 10-play touchdown drives that totaled 223 yards and 17 minutes, 42 seconds off the clock.
"It's kind of like in years past, when they find something that works, they keep going to it," Gifford said. "We've just got to be able to stop it and we didn't. We had some little scheme things, jumping out of gaps, things like that, and we just didn't get it done."
Hornibrook completed his only two pass on the drive that followed his pick-six — a 31-yarder on third down and a 5-yard, back-shoulder touchdown against Eric Lee’s coverage, both to sophomore Quintez Cephus — and Taylor continued to churn yards on a 10-play, 93-yard scoring drive.
"We pinned them, too," Riley lamented. "A great opportunity for us, but they very mechanically, methodically, physically ... controlled the ball on the ground."
UW freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor, who rumbled to 249 on 25 carries overall, opened the Badgers' response with runs of 7, 10 and 15. After fellow backs Bradrick Shaw and Rachid Ibrahim netted 6 on a pair of carries, Hornibrook hit Cephus, who ran past Huskers redshirt freshman defensive back Dicaprio Bootle on a shallow crossing route, for 31. Taylor added 19 more on three carries before Hornibrook found Cephus again in the end zone.
The Badgers then rushed on their final 22 snaps. They finished with 353 rushing yards and averaged 7.2 per attempt.
"(Taylor)'s a really good back," Gifford said. "He's a thick kid, rocked up, and we knew he would be. We talked about tackling all week and we had a few spurts there when we missed a lot of tackles that mattered. That's tough."
NU covered 57 yards on its first four plays, but a third-and-2 swing pass from Lee bounced off junior running back Devine Ozigbo and into the waiting arms of UW linebacker Chris Orr, who raced 78 yards for a touchdown.
Junior Tanner Lee’s fourth interception returned for a touchdown on the season boosted the opposition's total to 37 nonoffensive points against the Huskers in Memorial Stadium this fall.
"We got man coverage, the look we wanted, we practiced that play 15 times maybe this week," Lee said. "I don’t know what to say about that. Just kind of a tough situation and just a bad play all around."
NU didn't score through more than 28 minutes to open the game, but Lee created the big play his offense needed badly late in the first half.
Junior receiver Stanley Morgan hauled in a deep crossing route, turned up the sideline and raced 80 yards for a touchdown to cut No. 9 Wisconsin’s lead to three.
Taylor responded with a 75-yard touchdown run on UW’s next play, however.
“It looked to me like we lost some spots, when they’re running the power play, we lost some force on the edge, we were getting engulfed, and they were actually making our secondary tackle by bouncing that ball on the corner and forcing ... the corner to try to have to tackle. So we probably with our front need to force that edge and hold that a little bit better than we did for sure.”
Drew Brown capped a frenetic final 92 seconds with a 32-yard field goal to get the Huskers within 17-10 at the break.
The Huskers offense produced yards the entire first half, rolling up 313 (212 passing) against a defense that entered allowing an average of 247 per game. A week after UW recorded eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss against Northwestern, they did not sack Lee and had just three TFLs.
"I think I had time to get through my progressions and make some throws," Lee said. "The offensive line did well. I let them know, they did great with that."
Mistakes hurt the Huskers in the first half, though, while a lack of opportunities spoiled the second.
Ozigbo rushed for 112 yards on 23 carries overall -- his third straight outing with more than 100 -- but just 18 came after intermission.
"We went into half feeling really confident about our run game," sophomore center Michael Decker said. "Really confident about those 3 or 4-yard runs turning into larger runs. We didn't accomplish that as much as we wanted to."
Though less drastically after Lee's interception, NU continued to fail to capitalize on drives for most of the first half. The Huskers advanced to UW’s 44 or beyond four of its first five drives and came away with no points. Those marches finished interception, punt, punt, missed field goal and punt despite covering 183 total yards.
"We give them that touchdown and then don't get that field goal, those were parts in there that, you just can't be doing that against Wisconsin," Riley said. "That put us in a predicament where they controlled a good part of the fourth quarter and before that even."
Indeed, the hosts managed just 68 yards and had the ball for just 8:12 in the second half.
Riley said early in the week that his old friend Chryst would, "just keep running it at you," if he sensed he could.
Saturday night, that played out.
“I knew there were two things coming, one of them was going to be the run, and the other one was going to be a play-action or probably, to keep the quarterback more out of harm’s way, a bootleg, which would make it simple," Riley said. "But he opted for just flat out running the ball.”