MADISON, Wis. — When the Badgers tried to float like a butterfly, Nebraska safety Nate Gerry stung like a bee.
“I just knew, kind of toward the end of the game, how they were going to start attacking us,” Gerry said after his No. 7 Cornhuskers fell in overtime at No. 11 Wisconsin, 23-17. “And I knew once our defensive line started stopping the run, we started (realizing) that they were going to attack us in the air.”
The Big Red defensive back had last week likened the Big Ten West’s marquee matchup to a boxing match. In the second and third quarters, the Badgers ran 16 times for 71 yards, jabbing away at the Huskers’ midsection. With Nebraska having trimmed the Wisconsin lead to 17-14 on the third play of the fourth quarter, the hosts countered by going over the top.
Where Gerry was waiting.
With 12:36 left in the game, the senior safety plucked Alex Hornibook’s first-and-10 pass intended for Jazz Peavy out of the air and returned it 10 yards to the Badgers’ 46-yard line. Following four plays and a pin by Nebraska punter Caleb Lightbourn, the hosts drove again, this time to midfield with Bart Houston under center.
But a second-and-8 throw from Houston with 9:41 to go in the contest, was picked off in by a closing Gerry in space at the Huskers’ 30-yard line the way a gifted center fielder charges a medium line drive off the bat.
“And I knew that they were going to attack us in the “over” route, and things like that,” the Sioux Falls, S.D., native explained after the game. “And they were trying to use the big tight end (Troy Fumugalli). (I was) just playing on the vision of the quarterback, just making a break on the ball.”
It was the second two-interception tilt for Gerry this season — the first was against Wyoming in Week 1 — and pushed his career total to 13, tied with Josh Bullocks and one shy of the all-time record set by Dana Stephenson.
He brought a few other toys to the party, too, before the evening was up:
— Josh Planos (@JPlanos) October 29, 2016
And as good (and timely) as the pair of interceptions were, they might not have been the most impressive play of Gerry’s night, let alone the fourth quarter. On a second-and-10 Wisconsin run in a 17-17 game at the Huskers’ 34, Gerry shot from the right hashmark to the left to make a stop on Badgers tailback Dare Ogunbowale, minimizing the damage to a 6-yard gain. On third down, the Wisconsin senior runner picked up two more on the ground, and the Badgers kicker Andrew Endicott missed a 45-yard field goal wide left, the deadlock preserved.
Garry’s seven tackles put him at 249 in Lincoln — just five shy of reaching program’s the all-time top 10 list — and helped the guests to chip away at a 17-7 third-quarter deficit.
“I think he’s been playing a lot of good football lately,” Huskers coach Mike Riley said. “Nathan is a good, physical football player that has a lot of good football awareness, and that’s where you get in those positions to intercept those balls like that.”
The eyes have it, and Gerry’s eyes read things better than most. The 6-foot-2 safety ranks among the Big Ten’s Top 16 in tackled (59); second in interceptions (four, or 0.6 per game) and third in passes defensed per contest. (10 in seven games, or 1.4)
On the whole, it was a heck of a lot more pleasant than Nebraska’s last visit to Mad City in 2014, a 59-24 pasting that saw the Huskers give up 627 yards — 408 of them to future NFL standout Melvin Gordon — and 56 straight points without a response.
Saturday night’s defensive effort proved leaky in spots — Dare Ogubowale ran for 120 yards on 11 carries, Corey Clement picked up 82 more on 19 totes. But the Blackshirts patrolled the skies effectively than they did the ground, capping Wisconsin’s quarterback combo of Hornibrook and Houston to 114 passing yards, a touchdown and two picks.
“We had a real good week of practice, especially (the) defense,” Gerry said. “We came in with a lot of confidence … we came here, we knew what kind of fight we were going to get into.
“It was going to be a boxing match until the end. That’s what I was telling the guys from the beginning of the game: ‘Just keep battling, keep fighting, because you never know.’ And this is what happens. And we did our job and the defense played pretty well. Could’ve stepped up in certain situations. They’re a good offensive team, and they’re going to make plays, too.”
— Christopher Heady (@heady_chris) October 30, 2016
Overtime was a mess — the Huskers won the toss, chose defense first, then surrendered runs of five, seven, two and 11 yards in quick succession as the hosts reached the end zone in four plays. But Gerry felt the major takeaway from the Huskers’ first big test in a truly hostile environment was, in fact, the takeaways themselves.
“I think this team has been through so much. One loss isn’t going to bring us down,” Gerry said. “We’ve got a bunch of fighters.”