Loss at Wisconsin drops Huskers to 0-5, matches worst start to a season in program history

Loss at Wisconsin drops Huskers to 0-5, matches worst start to a season in program history
The Huskers had driven into Wisconsin territory, but a fumble by Adrian Martinez ended the third-quarter possession. (RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

MADISON, Wisc. — Nebraska failed, time and time again, to get out of its own way Saturday and fell to No. 16 Wisconsin, 41-24.

Nebraska’s 0-5 record is tied for the worst start to a season in the program’s 129-year history.

The game, like most of Nebraska’s this year, was a constant stream of self-inflicted damage. False starts to stall drives, blocks in the back in the red zone, holding calls to offset targeting penalties, pass interference calls to extend Wisconsin drives, fumbles, special teams blunders leading to a benched punter and wide, gaping holes for Badgers to run through.

Wisconsin possessed the ball for nearly an entire quarter more than Nebraska. Wisconsin barely outgained Nebraska 533 to 513, and both teams converted 26 first downs. But the Huskers were flagged 10 times for 100 yards.

True freshman Adrian Martinez finished the game 24 for 42 for 384 yards and two touchdowns. He was Nebraska’s leading rusher with 57 yards and a score. Sophomore receiver JD Spielman set the school record with 209 receiving yards. Stanley Morgan caught eight passes for 93 yards.

Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, the leading rusher in the nation, ran 24 times for 221 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook was 13 for 24 for 163 yards and a touchdown.

Nebraska went into halftime down 20-3.

On the second play of the second half, it looked like a comeback was possible. Martinez found Spielman on a quick slant that went for 75 yards to close the gap to 20-10.

On Wisconsin’s ensuing possession, NU defensive end Carlos Davis got two hands on Hornibrook on third-and-7, but Hornibrook escaped and completed a pass to keep the drive alive. Taylor scored a few plays later to make it 27-10.

Martinez fumbled on Nebraska’s next possession. Wisconsin running back Taiwan Deal scored from 20 yards out, and the game was essentially over from there.

Wisconsin has now won six straight games against Nebraska. The Huskers have now lost nine straight games dating back to last season.

Wisconsin got the ball first and while they ate up half the first quarter clock, had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglianone. Nebraska came out firing with a 12-yard strike from Martinez to Morgan on the first play. A false start penalty on Boe Wilson on first-and-10 bumped Nebraska back five yards, and the Huskers couldn’t get past a third-and-8.

Nebraska’s defense held the Badgers in the red zone again, this time early in the second quarter. Taylor was stuffed on second-and-7 at the line of scrimmage, and safety Aaron Williams had a pass breakup in the end zone. Wisconsin was forced again to kick a field goal, which Gaglianone made from 29 yards to make it 6-0.

A third-and-16 pass from Martinez to a wide-open Morgan put Nebraska into scoring range on its next possession. A 31-yard field goal by Barret Pickering slithered in to make it 6-3 with 9:55 left in the first.

Punter Caleb Lightbourn saved the ensuing kickoff return from a touchdown by just barely snagging the shoe of returner Aron Cruickshank. The save ultimately didn’t matter. At that point, Wisconsin’s offense had possessed the ball for almost a full quarter, and it was weighing on the Husker defense. Hornibrook completed passes of 16 and 26 yards to lead a Wisconsin drive down to the 3-yard line. Taylor ran in for his first score of the day to extend the Wisconsin lead to 13-3.

Before the half, Nebraska drove all the way to the Wisconsin 18, but two straight penalties — a block in the back and an illegal hands to the face — bumped Nebraska back behind the 50. The Huskers fought back to the Wisconsin 37, but a fourth-and-14 pass from Martinez fell incomplete.

Wisconsin cashed their next possession in with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Hornibrook to tight end Jake Ferguson to make it 20-3 before the half.

After the Spielman touchdown and ensuing 14 straight points by Wisconsin, Martinez found Jack Stoll on a scrambling toss to the end zone. The sophomore tight end snagged the pass away from a Wisconsin defender to make it 34-17 with 4:20 left in the third.

Taylor broke off an 88-yard touchdown run early in the fourth to bury Nebraska 41-17.

Martinez continued to impress late in the game, finishing off a drive midway through the fourth quarter with a 7-yard touchdown run.

Nebraska’s next game is at Northwestern, which upset ranked Michigan State on Saturday.

Maurice Washington’s practice pays off

MADISON, Wis. — Maurice Washington said he had the best practice of his life in the past week.

It showed.

The true freshman from Sunnyvale, California, had the best game of his young career on Saturday, running for 27 yards on five carries and catching four passes for 53 yards. He also returned two kickoffs for a total of 35 yards.

Washington missed last week’s game against Purdue after a bout with the flu.

“I definitely had the best practice of my life this week,” Washington said, “I just came back after the sickness I had the week before and I felt like I owed the team with my effort. So that’s what I did.”

Armstrong steps in, delivers as punter

Scott Frost approached Isaac Armstrong in the second quarter with a simple message: Buckle up and get ready.

With incumbent punter Caleb Lightbourn continuing to struggle, that’s exactly what the junior walk-on from Lincoln Southwest did.

“As a specialist, part of your job is always being ready when your number’s called,” Armstrong said. “Every game I’ve gone into, I’ve always had the mindset that this could be the one that I’m gonna get a chance. I feel like I made the most of that.”

Armstrong, who also serves as NU’s holder, booted his first punt 59 yards for a touchback in the second quarter. His only other try came in the fourth and netted 48 yards after bouncing out of bounds at Wisconsin’s 12-yard line.

Lightbourn, meanwhile, netted punts of 21 and 23 yards, the latter of which went off the side of his foot. The junior and three-year starter has been sporadic with his kicks all season.

“I feel like I did pretty well,” Armstrong said. “We’ve always got things to work on going forward, but I feel like it was a good start for me. But when you look at it as a big picture, as an entire team we need to put a couple more pieces together in order to get a win.”

Lee says NU is learning

Cornerback Eric Lee said he expected to rotate reps with Lamar Jackson and Cam Taylor. He said the game plan for defensive backs was to keep good eye discipline against Wisconsin’s shifting and pulling guards while serving as de facto linebackers when necessary.

The junior added that there was an energy in the locker room afterward as they better learn what’s necessary to win games.

“I feel like the team’s definitely going up,” Lee said. “I feel like last year’s team definitely would have just quit and rolled over, but I feel like this team this year, we definitely showed a lot of fight that we weren’t going to go down so easy.”

Tracking the freshmen

A pair of true freshmen played their fifth games, officially ending any chance to redshirt under the new NCAA rule.

Those appearing in their fifth contests Saturday were kicker Barret Pickering and outside linebacker Caleb Tannor. Three others played in their fourth — quarterback Adrian Martinez, running back Maurice Washington and cornerback Cam Taylor.

Beginning this season, players can appear in up to four games while retaining eligibility to redshirt.

Scott Frost wishes Tyjon Lindsey, Greg Bell well, says ‘sometimes those things are necessary’

Scott Frost didn’t want to say too much when asked about the two players — Tyjon Lindsey and Greg Bell — who left his program this week after four games.

“I wish those two kids well,” Frost said. “But our team’s going to keep getting stronger. I wish them well — that’s probably all I should say — but I feel good about where we’re going. Sometimes those things are necessary.”

Frost said he talked his team at the beginning of the week, telling players “you’re either all in or don’t be here.” The guys who stayed, Frost said, had a strong week of practice.

Players leaving the program during the season is a new experience for freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez.

“It’s definitely something I’m not used to, but I definitely understand that’s those guys’ decision,” Martinez said. “They want to play. They’re used to being able to play, being highly recruited, they want to play, that’s why they’re transferring, I can understand their situation.”

Martinez would have preferred Lindsey and Bell stayed, but he liked the tightness and camaraderie of the team this week.

“We’ve been through so much as a team already, ups and downs, little things not going our way,” Martinez said. “We’re getting closer as a unit knowing that we’re going through this struggle together, knowing we’re going to be back.”

Senior outside linebacker Luke Gifford called Bell and Lindsey “good kids” and players Nebraska counted on, but he was “proud” of the guys in Nebraska’s locker room.

“I’d go to war with them any day,” Gifford said.

Adrian Martinez leaves Wisconsin with head up after showing he can be a ‘special player’

MADISON, Wis. — Adrian Martinez strode off the Camp Randall Stadium turf with his head up and helmet on. He exchanged a hug and fist bump with tight ends coach Sean Beckton, then high-fived a few fans lining a railing as he disappeared into a tunnel.

Nebraska lost again and its quarterback reminded at times he was a true freshman playing in his fourth career college game. But the dual-threat playmaker also displayed his growth running the offense and at times gave tantalizing previews of what NU’s attack could eventually become.

The numbers themselves jump out. A Nebraska freshman-record 384 yards on 24-of-42 passing to go with two touchdowns. Thirteen rushes for 57 yards, which contributed to an NU freshman-record 441 yards of total offense — a number that also ranks fourth overall in school history and the most since Ryker Fyfe collected 442 against Purdue in 2015.

“Those (mistakes) are going to happen from time to time because he’s a freshman, and in the heat of battle, we gotta be better at communicating with him,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “But he’s 18 years old. Man, is he going to be a special player.”

Martinez said there were a few decisions he wished he had back, especially in the first half.

He pointed to a play where he didn’t see Maurice Washington on a corner route in man coverage, instead opting to roll the opposite direction and eventually throw the ball away. There were at least three other occasions when he forced passes into tight windows on the run that should have been intercepted. He fumbled twice in the third quarter, including one that the Badgers recovered and later turned into a touchdown to go up 34-10.

But the California native and former four-star prospect also showed better pocket presence. He knew when to tuck and run and when to distribute. So confident was Nebraska in his abilities that running backs netted just two traditional carries in the first half while Martinez operated the offense.

And Martinez’s efforts helped other Huskers thrive against Wisconsin’s defense, particularly during a 21-point second half. JD Spielman broke the school record with 209 receiving yards while Stanley Morgan added 93. Maurice Washington played his best game to date, making four catches for 53 yards and running five times for 27 more out of run-pass-option sets.

“I think the potential for the two of us is very promising,” Martinez said of himself and Washington. “But I’m really focusing on the now. Maurice is getting better day in and day out and I believe so am I. It’s just understanding what college football is about, what the work is about. I think we’re both getting better at that right now.”

Martinez also topped 400 yards of total offense last week when he passed for 323 and ran for 91. And while the Huskers are now 0-5, the QB said progress is evident.

“We’ve been through so much as a team already, ups and downs and little things not going our way,” Martinez said. “We’re battling through adversity; we’re getting closer as a unit knowing that we’re going through this struggle together and knowing that we’re gonna be back. We’re gonna get this thing turned around. We just can’t lose the faith. I feel like this week we really just kind of adopted that idea whole-heartedly.”

Quick hits

» JD Spielman broke his own record for receiving yards in a game with 209 against Wisconsin. But he became just the second player in school history to go over 130 receiving yards in consecutive games. The last person to do that was Frosty Anderson in 1973 against Wisconsin and Minnesota.

» Nebraska’s 0-5 start ties for the worst start to a season in school history. In 1945, led by head coach Potsy Clark, Nebraska started the season with losses to Oklahoma, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa State and Missouri. After starting with five straight losses, the Huskers actually finished the season on a four-game win streak, and were 4-5.

» Nebraska is now the owner of two of the longest streaks in college football. The first: Nebraska has at least 10 penalties in every single game this season. The second: The Huskers have allowed 40 or more points in six straight conference games, dating to the Minnesota game on Nov. 11, 2017.

» Martinez’s 441 total yards against Wisconsin were fourth-most in a game in school history.

» Stanley Morgan had eight catches for 93 yards on Saturday. He passed Johnny Rodgers for career receptions, with 144, and is now fourth in school history in catches. Spielman, a sophomore, is 14th in career receiving yards in school history.

» A BTN announcer said during the game that Cam Jurgens, a freshman tight end out of Beatrice, may move to center, according to a conversation Friday night with Frost.

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