LINCOLN — It had all the hype, all the pageantry.
Nebraska honored the 1997 national championship team in Lincoln Saturday, Grant Wistrom led NU through the tunnel walk.
The blackout at Memorial Stadium had all the elements designed to make it appear to be a special night for Husker football.
Instead, it was especially frustrating.
Nebraska drove right down the field on the opening possession - two big plays put NU in the red zone. The stars felt aligned.
Then came another Tanner Lee train wreck — not his fault — the ball bounced off Devine Ozigbo's hands, Wisconsin returned an interception return 78 yards for a touchdown.
You could just feel the energy deflate from the party balloons.
In the end, Wisconsin physically pounded Nebraska into submission in a second half that Husker nation may not soon forget — Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 17.
Even a penalty-prone Badger team had Nebraska playing from behind seemingly from the opening drive.
Nebraska's offense moved the ball. The defense made plays, for one half of football.
What's most perplexing is how Wisconsin manhandled this Nebraska team. UW finished with 353 yards rushing on 49 attempts, with Jonathan Taylor going off on NU with 249 yards and two touchdowns.
That's how the big boys play this game.
At some point this Nebraska program will need to let go of the ghosts of Husker football and remake its way — the luster is fading from championships gone by.
The luster has faded from this season, especially with high-flying Ohio State coming to Lincoln next week.
Ironically, Nebraska probably played its best game of the 2017 season, even as the Badgers took NU apart in the second half.
Silver linings are hard to find. Only wins count in this game.
For the most part Lee was making plays — zinging completions into tight coverage in the first half. For goodness sake, he had 212 yards passing at half, and was clearly Nebraska's best chance to move the ball consistently. Ozigbo found creases in the Wisconsin defense — running for 96 yards including a nice 28 yarder in the first half.
Then came a second-half and a number of Wisconsin adjustments that turned the tide.
Lee finished with 262 yards through the air and Ozigbo 112 on the ground. The most stunning statistic of all — Wisconsin held Nebraska to 68 total yards in the second half.
Nebraska had its chances. NU made big plays, but in the end this team was schooled on how a nationally competitive program goes about its business.
For the second half the Badgers painfully showed Nebraska fans what it's like to play championship football.
Even when Nebraska went on a long drive midway through the second quarter, it ended in a missed field goal by the usually reliable Drew Brown.
It was frustratingly tantalizing — Nebraska always seemed to be on the verge of something big, only to have that one bad play wreck momentum.
This is a program in need of big wins. Instead, Wisconsin showed exactly how far off Nebraska really is to being equipped to weather the storms in big games.
NU just didn't do that against the Badgers.
Even when Lee connected with Stanley Morgan on an 80-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 to play in the second quarter to cut the lead to 10-7, Wisconsin drove a dagger through Memorial Stadium's heart when Jonathan Taylor broke loose on a 75-yard touchdown run on the very next possession to make it 17-7 Badgers.
I'm not usually one to keep track of missed calls by officials, but there was a bunch in this game — and at critical times. Nebraska's offense kept its poise, finishing off a drive with a field goal to make it 17-10 at half, UW.
Even then, Nebraska had two shots at the end zone, but NU's play calling went into the deep freeze. With 11 seconds to go in the half, Nebraska's offense ran two pass plays, not taking a single shot at the end zone.
Looking back now, that was another critical juncture in the game.
In the second half Nebraska's defense came up big when safety Aaron Williams picked off Alex Hornibrook and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 17-17 with 10:43 to play in the third. Nebraska then pinned Wisconsin deep inside its own 10 yard line on the ensuing kickoff — sure felt like momentum was squarely on NU's side.
As was the case all game long, Wisconsin took back the momentum on a 93-yard scoring drive that took more than five minutes off the clock to grab the lead at 24-17.
It wasn't to be on this night. Fans started heading for the exits after Wisconsin took a 31-17 lead with 9:08 to play, and the wheels started to come off.
The Badgers made defensive adjustments, shutting down the Nebraska offense in the second half.
Wisconsin took control in the second half with a harder edge in its running game that was lacking in the first half.
Speaking of ghosts, this is what the '97 Nebraska team did well — physically wore on the opposition and forced its will in the fourth quarter.
It's what great teams do. Remember what that was like Nebraska fans?