While Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema cooked for friends and his fiancee last month as he does every Thursday night during the season, he turned on the North Carolina State-Cincinnati game.
The contest was at halftime, and North Carolina State was well on its way to a blowout loss after its new starting quarterback, Mike Glennon, had thrown two interceptions in the first quarter.
Bielema just shook his head in amazement at his good fortune. His star quarterback, Russell Wilson, had been North Carolina State’s starter until he transferred this past summer.
Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien wouldn’t give the redshirt senior a chance to keep his job because his minor league baseball career interfered with football.
“How did I get this kid?’” Bielema recalls asking himself as he watched North Carolina State get routed by Cincinnati.
With seventh-ranked Wisconsin’s 48-17 rout of No. 8 Nebraska on a chilly Saturday night — behind Wilson’s dazzling 255 passing yards with two touchdown passes and a 10-yard touchdown run — it’s a question the rest of college football also is asking.
While the answer is O’Brien’s stubbornness, Wisconsin finds itself in the thick of the national championship hunt. The team has a favorable schedule the rest of the season and Wilson has emerged as a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. This season he has thrown for 1,391 yards and 13 touchdowns with just one interception.
“As well as he’s playing, if there’s a better player in college football I’d like to see it,” Bielema said. “The big stage, he thrives on it. He plays so clean.”
Against Nebraska’s vaunted Blackshirt defense, the 5-foot-11, 210-pound dual-threat Wilson answered critics of his team’s easy non-conference schedule with a sterling 14-of-20 passing performance.
Despite Wisconsin’s shaky first possession and the Badgers falling behind for the first time this season, Wilson started to take over in the second quarter. He accounted for all but 7 yards of a six-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that ended with tailback Montee Ball’s 3-yard touchdown run, which cut Nebraska’s lead to 14-13 with 9:48 left in the second quarter.
But every time Wisconsin trailed, Wilson kept the offense poised. In the huddle, left guard Travis Frederick recalls Wilson saying, “We’ve got to weather the storm.”
“He was even keel the whole time,” Frederick said. “He was keeping us up.”
Later in the second quarter, Wilson rolled out to his right and lofted a 36-yard touchdown pass to wide-open wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who made a diving reception in the end zone. After a Nebraska punt, Wilson pump-faked before connecting with streaking wide receiver Nick Toon on a 46-yard touchdown pass for a 27-14 halftime lead.
Wilson’s barrage stunned Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini and his team in their first conference game as a member of the Big Ten.
“I’m embarrassed by how we played defensively,” Pelini said. “I apologize to the fans of Nebraska, because that was a joke. Plain and simple.”
After Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez was intercepted to open the second half, Wilson had a 10-yard touchdown run on a naked bootleg to the left in which he beat two Cornhuskers defenders. He finished the game with six carries for 32 yards.
“Yes, he amazes me, but on the same account, it doesn’t,” Bielema said. “Everything he does is just kind of real natural.”
Just like Wilson’s attention to detail. Bielema has a tactic that when his team is up at least three scores, he milks the clock in the second half and doesn’t snap the ball until there is less than five seconds left on the play clock.
It’s a philosophy that Bielema learned from his predecessor and current Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, a former Nebraska player, who congratulated his coach after the game with a hug and by telling him, “Great f****** job.”
But even with the game well in hand in the fourth quarter, Wilson remembered that Bielema wanted to run the clock, and instead of running out of bounds, Wilson slid down in bounds.
“This kid and his presence is off the charts,” Bielema said.
With Wilson eligible to play right away for Wisconsin because he already had graduated and had only one year of eligibility, he’s been labeled as a “rent-a-player.” When Bielema was asked after the game whether he was bothered by the stigma, he had a one-word answer.
“Hallelujah,” Bielema replied.
And when reminded that Wisconsin’s once vanilla run-first offense wasn’t considered sexy prior to Wilson’s arrival, Bielema laughed and jokingly said, “We’re sexy.”
“I just still believe we’re Wisconsin and what we are,” he said. “We’re just extremely good right now.”
Before Wilson’s arrival, Bielema didn’t have that same confidence. He talked about his team winning a Big Ten title, but not as a national championship contender.
The latter is a real possibility, with Wisconsin’s toughest remaining games at Michigan State on Oct. 22 and at Ohio State the following week.
“I didn’t realize he’d handle the stage as well as he does,” Bielema said of Wilson.
Wilson is doing it in a way that has his teammates spellbound on occasions. Wisconsin free safety Aaron Henry recalls once hearing former NBA player Steve Kerr talk about how other players on the court with Michael Jordan would sometimes just stop and watch him.
“I’m not comparing Russell to Michael Jordan, but sometimes you just have to stop and see what he’s doing out there and see how amazing he’s playing,” Henry said.
As awed as Henry is by Wilson, he’s even more stunned that O’Brien let Wilson get away from North Carolina State.
“I don’t know what that coach was thinking,” Henry said. “Someone else’s trash is another man’s treasure. In Wisconsin, we love him. It’s so hard to fathom.”
As Wilson ran off the field after the game, the Wisconsin student section chanted his name. He waved to the crowd, and before disappearing into the tunnel, he made the No. 1 gesture.
“It’s definitely huge,” Wilson said of the victory. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Bielema acknowledged that the impressive way his team won Saturday night thrust it into the national championship discussion, but he wouldn’t say more than that he would vote the Badgers “very well” in the USA Today coaches poll. Not that he was ducking the question.
He’s just still trying to figure out how he landed Wilson.