MADISON, Wis. — As jubilant Wisconsin football players rushed the field after their overtime triumph, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong walked toward the locker room with his head held high.
You never question his effort or will to win.
Then, in the postgame news conference, he said something that reasonable folks could question.
"At the end of the day, the better team won ..." he said.
I wonder about that. It's impossible not to wonder, which is why Nebraska's first loss of the season had to feel like a gut-punch. The Huskers were this close to putting a stranglehold on first place in the Big Ten West Division and squelching doubts about their worthiness as a top-10 team. They were this close to taking down a nemesis -- the hard-punching Badgers -- before a raucous crowd of 80,833 at Camp Randall Stadium.
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"I will say everything I know about our team is confirmed," said Nebraska second-year coach Mike Riley, whose seventh-ranked team dropped to 7-1 (4-1 Big Ten). "They'll continue to fight."
You can bank on that. And you can bank on Nebraska being a headache for No. 6 Ohio State next week in the Horseshoe. You feel confident saying that because, echoing Riley's thoughts, the Huskers confirmed -- yes, even in defeat -- what a lot of us understood already. That is, Riley's young program is growing quickly. To be sure, Wisconsin's 23-17 escape represented a sure sign of growth for Nebraska.
There was sign after sign, actually.
Granted, No. 11 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) played without a couple of key starters on defense. Still, the Badgers are stout in almost all areas of that unit. They entered the night ranked 10th nationally in rushing defense, having held teams to 102.0 yards. Nebraska, however, took the fight to the home team. The Huskers ran 44 times for 152 yards, a modest 3.5 per carry.
But Nebraska's attitude and toughness spoke volumes. Folks wondered whether the Huskers would have to pass to set up the run. Maybe they would stray from Riley's determination to be a top-three rushing team in the conference. Nope. Terrell Newby ran straight up the middle on the game's first play, and NU kept hammering away at Wisconsin's midsection. If you bleed Husker red, you take that as another good sign for the future.
You also like that Riley was far from satisfied with his team's rushing attack, that he was far from satisfied in general.
Yeah, this stung. But there's some good in that hurt. Riley was particularly proud of his team's poise. After Wisconsin pounded out a 13-play touchdown drive to lead 17-7 midway through the third quarter, you wondered if Nebraska might back down, as has been the case so many times in recent years on big stages.
Nebraska, though, kept coming, with nary a trace of fear or panic.
Husker senior safety Nate Gerry -- playing the best football of his career -- intercepted two fourth-quarter passes, the second leading to the field goal that helped send the game into overtime. As expected, the Huskers' vastly improved pass defense gave the Badgers' ordinary quarterbacks fits.
But the Blackshirts perhaps wore down, Riley said. After Wisconsin produced only 50 rushing yards on 15 attempts in the first half (3.3 per carry), the Badgers slammed out 173 yards on 23 carries (7.5) in the second half and overtime.
"What you find is some of the plays early, you're right on the right edge of the blocker, right in the right position in your gap," Riley said. "And then I think we got out-positioned just enough in some of those runs at the end that hurt us, and that was the difference-maker."
I watched Nebraska players closely on the sideline late in regulation and overtime. In those players, I saw poise and confidence that a victory was forthcoming, right up until Armstrong's final pass fell incomplete and Camp Randall Stadium exploded with joy, and some relief.
You saw what I saw. The teams were comparable in terms of overall talent. Maybe the better team won, as Armstrong said. But it's certainly debatable.
Armstrong said something else that nobody would dispute, telling reporters that you can't make mistakes and expect to defeat great teams.
"I thought Tommy fought like crazy," Riley said.
Yes, he did. But championship quarterbacks do more than just fight. Championship quarterbacks make good decisions no matter the foe. They maintain momentum, as opposed to stopping it, as Armstrong essentially did with two first-half interceptions -- both occurring in Wisconsin territory.
Armstrong was just 12-for-31 passing, for 153 yards. He had clutch completions -- the Huskers were 9-for-18 on third down -- but too often misfired.
He played OK on a night he needed to be better than OK.
Wisconsin left the door open in OT, but Nebraska wasn't quite ready to push through.
"We're going to be better from this," said Husker senior slot receiver Jordan Westerkamp.
Think about that for a second. Urban Meyer probably is.