MADISON, Wis. — The whole “paper tiger” thing is cute and all. Until that tiger bares its teeth.
Going into Saturday night in Madison, they’d called the 2016 Nebraska Cornhuskers everything under the sun, hadn’t they? All hat, no cowboy. Straw men. Tin gods. Empty suits.
And those were the compliments.
But ask yourself this:
Could a gang of empty suits pile up 16 first downs on the road against the No. 11 team in the country?
Could a bunch of straw men run for 150 yards through four quarters on the No. 10 rush defense in the land, one averaging the opposition just 102.9 per contest going into the night?
Could tin gods rally from a 17-7 third-quarter deficit at Camp Randall Stadium to force overtime?
The instant someone pops off that the Huskers are phony baloney, you point to the scoreboard on Saturday. To Wisconsin 23, Nebraska 17.
Point to this game. This stage.
Could baloney make Madison sweat?
No. 6 Ohio State forced extras at Camp Randall. A fortnight later, the seventh-ranked Big Red (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) did the same.
Are the Buckeyes all hat?
On second thought, don’t answer that.
Still, the point stands, even if the Huskers’ undefeated record doesn’t. Nebraska was a nine-point underdog before it set foot in Mad City, a 7-0 record that drew dubious looks after Oregon, 35-32 losers at Lincoln on Sept. 17, went straight to the mat and never got up again. The only team the Big Red has defeated with a winning record, as of Week 9, is Wyoming (6-2) — a 52-17 Nebraska rout on Sept. 10.
The Cowboys, by the way, just stunned No. 13 Boise State, 30-28.
So hindsight shines a little bit brighter on that particular victory. So, too, the scalp at Northwestern (4-4) in the conference opener on Sept. 24. The Wildcats would go on to win at Iowa and at Michigan State — and darn near did the same at Ohio Stadium, of all places.
The Badgers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) haven’t won in Evanston, Ill., if you’re curious, since 1999, when Ron Dayne was carrying the load. So the Big Ten West may be tighter after this one. But it ain’t over yet. Not by a long shot.
And the Big Red didn’t turn up to look benign. The Huskers’ average starting field position in the first half: their 35. The Badgers: The Wisconsin 25. The hosts’ only two scoring drives of the opening 30 minutes started at their own 49 (touchdown after two plays) and at midfield (44-yard field goal after seven). Which helped.
As did this: Nebraska converted five of its first nine third-down opportunities, while the Badgers were two of eight. If the stakes were too high, the moment too big, the team in the white jerseys sure did show it.
Even the rare early blights were redeemed, eventually. With 6:20 to go in the first quarter and a third-and-5 at midfield, Huskers wideout Brandon Reilly cut open on a quick-hitting inside route, and had room in front of him to run. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong found him but fired high and wide, an opportunity missed.
The Nebraska signal-caller would fare better two series later, beating a Badgers blitz with a rainbow up the right boundary to Jordan Westerkamp for a 36-yard gain to end the first quarter at the Wisconsin 4. Three plays later, the Huskers punched it in on a 1-yard Devine Ozigbo dive over the right tackle to get the visitors on the board and erase a 7-0 deficit.
Yes, Armstrong’s throws (12-for-31 passing, two picks) were all over the place. Yes, the run defense was a nightmare, especially late, and especially when backup tailback Dare Ogunbowale (11 carries, 120 rushing yards) entered the fray.
But the hollow men of red proved, when backed in a corner, that they can take a punch.
And, more to the point, that they’re sure as hell not done swinging yet.