Camp Randall a house of heartbreak, but Frost hopes it’s a turning point
LINCOLN — Russell Wilson looked to the sideline, hands on his hips, awaiting the play call late in the fourth quarter when Camp Randall Stadium burst into song.
“Why do you build me up (build me up), Buttercup baby
Just to let me down (let me down), and mess me around”
The ditty washed over Nebraska tackle Terrence Moore and the Husker defense, who faced away from the howling student section. No. 8 Nebraska trailed 41-17. No. 7 Wisconsin was in the red zone, about to bury its newest conference foe deeper into the ground. There was nothing Moore or the rest of the Blackshirts could do that night to stop the Badgers, or the student section, which sang the chorus of the 1968 hit by The Foundations and poured salt into the gashing wound of Husker pride.
“I need you (I need you) more than anyone, darlin’
You know that I have from the start
So build me up (build me up), Buttercup, don’t break my heart”
Every time Nebraska has traveled north to Madison, Wisconsin, since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Buttercup has broken the Huskers’ heart. Each of the three trips — in 2011, 2014 and 2016 — became defining moments. There was the rude introduction, the final straw and both the peak and the end of the Mike Riley era.
Nebraska will try again Saturday with a third head coach to conquer Camp Randall for the first time since joining the conference.
Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco is one of a few in the program who’s coached or played in Madison. He and Northern Iowa lost big years ago.
“What’s the difficulty?” Verduzco said this week. “The football team. Yeah, they’re good.”
Wisconsin represents in many ways what Nebraska wants to be — and what it used to be. The Badgers have played in a conference title game five of the past seven years, beating Nebraska 70-31 in 2012. They boast white helmets with a red letter and a brutal ground game that grinds teams down. In an interview with Sports Illustrated this summer, Frost said Wisconsin Athletic Director and Nebraska graduate Barry Alvarez took the Husker “blueprint” and brought it to Madison. Alvarez emphasized in-state recruiting, the walk-on program and a heavy run game.
Frost, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and several Nebraska players said this week that they don’t want to be Wisconsin. But they’d sure like to be something similar.
“Do we want to be Wisconsin? No, that’s not our style of football,” Chinander said. “But we need to get to the championship attitude that they have, the championship discipline that they have, the championship mentality that they have.”
Things have changed drastically in Lincoln since that first visit in October 2011. In Madison, there have also been two coaching changes, but the culture and makeup of the program have stayed nearly the same.
The storylines in 2011 — with Bret Bielema as Wisconsin’s coach — were the same as this week. Then-Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini called the Badgers a “machine.” Coach Bo Pelini said Wisconsin never beat itself and made few mistakes, if any.
Wisconsin was Nebraska’s inaugural Big Ten game. The Huskers were 4-0 and coming off two straight conference title berths in the Big 12. They flourished in their former conference with scrambling quarterback Taylor Martinez and a litany of running backs such as Rex Burkhead. They weren’t afraid of the Big Ten and its rough-and-tumble reputation.
“Trust me, the Big Ten is a physical conference,” Pelini said, “but it’s not like we’ve never played physical football before until this year.”
ESPN’s College GameDay was on hand for the top-10 matchup. When the broadcast opened, ABC announcer Brent Musburger called it “one of the biggest home games in Badgers history.”
And then Nebraska’s high-octane offense was stuffed. The Badgers ran for 231 yards. Wilson completed 14 of 20 passes for 255 yards en route to a 48-17 blowout.
In the fourth quarter, Wisconsin’s student section chanted: “Big Ten Football.” Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. “Big Ten Football.”
“I’m embarrassed how we played,” Pelini said. “I apologize to the fans of Nebraska. That was a joke.”
Pelini admitted that he’d consider recruiting differently and change up his scheme to adapt to the Big Ten. It was a wake-up call for Nebraska. The Big Ten was a different beast.
But it didn’t get much better three years later.
Nebraska was 8-1 entering the 2014 game at No. 22 Wisconsin, still looking for that signature win. The Huskers entered with one of the top offenses in the country, scoring at least 30 points in all but one game. A win over Wisconsin would’ve put Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Maybe that would hush the rumors that Pelini’s tenure was coming to a close.
And then the snow began to fall in Madison. And Camp Randall became a House of Pain.
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon ran up the middle, off the right tackle, off a slot receiver, on a jet sweep around linebackers. It didn’t seem to matter how much snow fell that night, he couldn’t be stopped. Gordon ran for 42, 62, 39, 44, 43, 68 and 26 yards in the first three quarters. He set the FBS record with 408 rushing yards by the end of the third quarter.
Camp Randall jumped around while a despondent Nebraska sideline watched.
“I don’t get into all these big-picture talks. That’s one football game,” Pelini said afterward. “This program has won a lot of football games.”
Pelini was fired about two weeks later.
“We just, for whatever reason, weren’t good enough in the games that mattered against championship-caliber, quality opponents,” former Husker A.D. Shawn Eichorst said at his press conference announcing the firing.
Enter Riley and the 2016 game. In October of that year, it looked like the Riley hire was going to pay off for Eichorst. Nebraska had rebounded after a 5-7 season in 2015 and was rolling, 7-0 and No. 7 in the AP poll.
The Wisconsin game was an opportunity for Nebraska to springboard into the conference title game and prove it was back after years of irrelevance. But the Huskers had doubters aplenty, including ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit.
“When was your last meaningful season?” he asked Husker fans on Twitter.
“It’s a good chance to prove ourselves,” safety Nate Gerry said a few days before the game.
It looked like a battle between two legitimate programs well into the fourth quarter. A failed final-minute drive by Nebraska sent the game into overtime tied at 17. Wisconsin scored first on three straight run plays but missed the extra point.
Kicker Drew Brown remembers a jolt of excitement from the sideline, realizing a score and an extra point would send Nebraska to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. A run by Terrell Newby went for 3 yards. Then he lost a yard. A pass by Tommy Armstrong fell incomplete on third down, and the Huskers were faced with fourth-and-game.
Stanley Morgan beat his man on the outside and had an opening, but Armstrong’s pass bounced off the turf as Camp Randall exploded in Nebraska’s peril for a third time.
When the dust settled, it was still an optimistic postgame locker room.
“Everything I know about our team is confirmed,” Riley said. “Which is they continue to fight.”
But Riley’s Huskers spiraled after that.
Wisconsin is 23-3 since then, and two of those losses came in the 2016 and 2017 Big Ten title games.
Nebraska, meanwhile, is 6-16, losing those 16 games by an average of 23.7 points.
Riley was fired following the 2017 season. And Frost now enters the game in Madison 0-4, trying to reverse the course of the Riley era.
Nebraska is a three-score underdog, but Frost feels like this could be a turning point in the season. Mistakes have piled on top of one another, but Frost said this week the team is serious about fixing them.
“It’s been kind of a water shedding moment for us, this last game,” Frost said of the home loss to Purdue last week. “Until they experience it, it doesn’t get changed. I can see a change now.”
Nebraska heads into what could be another defining moment in its history in Madison. Nebraska falls to 0-5 with a loss and ties the worst start to a season in 129 years of Husker football. A win could spark the Frost era against the team he claims stole the Nebraska blueprint and won with it.
Frost tried to downplay the similarities between the two schools on Thursday, but admitted that Wisconsin is the standard Nebraska wants to reach again.
“We’re playing against our former selves,” Frost said. “We just have to be better than we have been.”