The magic in Madison runs out, but Nebraska leaves Wisconsin stronger than ever

#11 Wisconsin 23, #7 Nebraska 17

Column and photo by Matt Reynoldson, NewsNetNebraska

Nebraska players enter the field carrying late punter Sam Foltz’s jersey before taking on #11 Wisconsin on Saturday night.

MADISON, Wis. – Long after the stadium lights turned off in Evanston, Bloomington, and even Lincoln, Husker fans were left wondering if their team was for real. As the voices of critics and naysayers got louder, Nebraska players couldn’t shut them out.

“We don’t work for people to just criticize us about whether we deserve to win six games or not,” senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong said after a win at Indiana. “They’re not out there playing. We’re out there playing.”

Players noticed the doubters, particularly on ESPN’s College Gameday. They took it as a sign of disrespect – but to be fair, Nebraska didn’t exactly go through the gauntlet through the first two months.

Then came Saturday night. A primetime television slot. A top-11 matchup. A chance to prove they really belonged.

And even though Nebraska leaves Madison with a new tally in the loss column, they’ll take away plenty of victories from Camp Randall Stadium.

“We learned how much heart this team has,” senior linebacker Josh Banderas said. “That’s what’s going to take us where we want to go.”

It looked like the heart of this team would pull this one off down the stretch. While Camp Randall Jumped Around with a 10-point lead between the third and fourth quarters, the Huskers regrouped. It took them three plays to score in the fourth quarter and cut it to a 3-point deficit.

When Nathan Gerry intercepted Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook three plays after that, it looked like Nebraska was about to have one of those magical fourth quarters.

When the Huskers turned Gerry’s second interception into a game-tying field goal by Drew Brown, there was even more magic in the air.

And when Wisconsin kicker Andrew Endicott pulled what would have been a go-ahead 45-yard field goal beyond the left upright, it was almost as if Sam Foltz had engineered some divine intervention.

The Huskers had their chances on the final drive. They made it into Wisconsin territory before being forced to punt. This team owns the fourth quarter this season with a 108-13 scoring margin. They didn’t want a fifth quarter.

The narrative of an unseasonably warm evening in Madison isn’t that Nebraska didn’t have enough. The narrative is how much Nebraska did have.

Consider the adversity: Down 10 in the fourth quarter against one of the toughest home teams in the country. Guys are banged up (Nebraska lost right guard Tanner Farmer to an ankle injury in the first half). Struggling to put an offensive drive together. Getting shut out in the turnover battle and dealing with an egregious discrepancy in penalty yardage.

Through it all, Nebraska fought back.

“Everything that I know about our team is confirmed, which is that they’ll continue to fight,” head coach Mike Riley said.

Fight they did, down to the very last play against a team and program that has given them fits. You can sense a different feeling with this team. There’s a different resilience to this coaching staff.

It’s surprising that a loss yields fewer questions than when this team was undefeated. There are no more questions as to whether the Huskers are ready for big games. There seems to be far fewer worries about getting embarrassed on big stages, a bad habit made of the old regime.

It’s a tall task to go into Columbus and compete with an Ohio State program that’s boasts a 57-5 record under Urban Meyer, but there’s no doubt Nebraska is up to the challenge. Not now. Not after this.

As Armstrong’s pass fell to the turf in the north end zone, the result sank in. The Huskers had lost a game. Mike Riley and his players were clearly heartbroken after this one – rarely in a loss is there positivity.

But Nebraska can take hope from this. They were a split second on a Stanley Morgan end zone route away from winning in Madison. That’s a lot more than they had proven to this point.

“We’re going to go back home and start practicing and get ready to play a better game next week,” Mike Riley paused, and then defiantly said, “Get ready to win next week.

The road only gets tougher. But the Huskers are perhaps even more hungry now, and they still control their own destiny.

This team may just have a little magic left in them before the lights go out in Columbus.

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