Wisconsin's running game -- so long a strength -- is sputtering.
By BENJAMIN WORGULL FS Wisconsin
LINCOLN, Neb. – As he stood in the postgame news conference with his hands deep in his pockets, Wisconsin senior tailback Montee Ball reiterated that he wasn't going to point fingers after his team's latest frustrating rushing performance.
"As a player, I put it all on myself," he said. "I believe it betters myself, which will obviously better this team."
The Badgers' mood after their latest threw-the-fingers setback -- a 30-27 loss at No. 22 Nebraska in the Big Ten conference opener – was one of disappointment and frustration. Wisconsin finished with 56 rushing yards, averaged 1.5 yards per rush and had only one run of more than 10 yards in the second half.
For a team that began the season with a returning Heisman Trophy finalist and prides itself on running the ball, shocking was the best way to describe the Badgers' inability to grind out a win after leading by 17 points with 10:29 left in the third quarter. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) jogged into the locker room leading 20-10 after averaging 5.4 yards per play (205 yards on 38 plays) in the first half. Ball ran for two touchdowns and the defense bottlenecked a Nebraska offense that scored 73 points the week before.
It was an encouraging flashback to last year's Wisconsin team that consistently torched opposing defenses on its march to a second straight Rose Bowl.
"Everything was clicking," said Ball, who ran for 73 yards and three touchdowns in the first 34:31. "Offensive line was doing a great job, the receivers were catching the ball, and the running backs were running the ball hard."
But Nebraska (4-1, 1-0) adjusted after halftime, bringing a safety up in run coverage. Continuously not having enough bodies to match up, Wisconsin tried to counter Nebraska's techniques with run zone and isolation plays.
The countermeasures failed, resulting in Wisconsin's 18 second-half running plays going for 12 yards. Nebraska, meanwhile, finished the game with 259 rushing yards, had three players with more than 70 rushing yards and outgained Wisconsin, 440-295, in total yards.
"They drew some stuff up that worked," said Ball, who finished with 90 rushing yards on 32 carries. "We have to make sure we prepare for a four-quarter game and keep the intensity high. I felt like we let off the gas, and you could clearly see it."
Wisconsin's once-vaunted offensive line seemed to lose strength as the game wore on. Nebraska registered 12 tackles for loss, including three sacks.
"Everybody wants to blame it on us," junior center Travis Frederick said. "That's fine with us. We don't mind the burden. We just need to come out and make the holes bigger. If the hole is not big enough, we make it bigger.
"If we don't play well, the whole team doesn't play well."
In Wisconsin's two losses this season, the failure of the offensive line to gain the necessary push has been evident. In Wisconsin's 10-7 defeat at Oregon State in Week 2, the Badgers went 2 for 5 in situations where one yard was needed to move the chains.
On fourth-and-one with the Badgers needing to gain about 20 yards to try a game-tying field goal late in the game, Ball's run to the right resulted in a three-yard loss and a fumble recovered by Nebraska.
"In the second half, we just never really seemed to get in rhythm," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "We really didn't establish anything inside running the football."
Making matters worse, the play wasn't supposed to a Ball run. According to Ball and quarterback Danny O'Brien – who replaced freshman Joel Stave in the final 2:55 to run Wisconsin's two-minute offense – the play call was a naked bootleg.
"I didn't know he was going to give me the ball," Ball said
O'Brien said the confusion was with whether the play was an automatic bootleg or an option bootleg. Thinking the latter and seeing a cornerback and a safety outside, O'Brien handed off to Ball, who never got a clean hold of the football before he was hit.
"Anytime there's a miscommunication on that front, it falls on the quarterback," O'Brien said. "I take 100 percent of the blame for it."
It was a fitting end to an ugly half in which Wisconsin's seven drives averaged 15.4 yards without once lasting at least 40 yards. Eliminate Nebraska's kneel down to ice the game, and the Cornhuskers averaged 49.3 yards per drive in the second half, including two touchdown drives of more than 75 yards.
Both of those drives were set up by the run, including a 38-yard scramble from junior quarterback Taylor Martinez that was the start of 20 unanswered points to close the game.
"They are a good team," senior linebacker Mike Taylor said of the Cornhuskers. "They can score. They can run."
And right now, the Badgers – who have built their program on grind-it-out football for almost two decades – can't.