INDIANAPOLIS — For weeks, the running narrative surrounding Wisconsin’s football program was it had no business being here in the first place. “First place,” of course, being the operative words that taunted Badgers players in preparation for their Big Ten championship game appearance.
No one will argue Wisconsin entered Saturday’s title game about as far from first as any team playing for a conference title in college football history — four games behind undefeated Ohio State and two behind Penn State. Only a confluence of bizarre circumstances banning both schools from postseason play allowed Wisconsin to back its way into the championship game as a perfectly mediocre third-place Big Ten team with losses to both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.
Whether the Badgers truly deserved to be in Indianapolis can be debated for years. What can’t be debated is the remarkable performance Wisconsin put together when given its opportunity.
Wisconsin annihilated Nebraska, 70-31, to capture the Big Ten championship with a masterful offensive showing that featured almost every last trick in the Badgers’ bag. In the process, Wisconsin (8-5) won its second straight conference title game and became the first Big Ten team to earn three straight Rose Bowl berths since Michigan 33 years ago.
Pac-12 winner Stanford (11-2) awaits Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, and when the teams meet Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif., it will mark the 99th game in the bowl’s history. It will also be the first game featuring a five-loss team.
Maybe the Badgers don’t belong there, but the roses on the Lucas Oil Stadium field Saturday night didn’t smell any less sweet.
“I think it justifies a lot,” Badgers left guard Ryan Groy said. “It’s something that people still will probably question us going to the Rose Bowl. It’s the worst record going into the Rose Bowl is what people said earlier. But I think we justified it by winning the Big Ten championship and really beating them up pretty good.”
So just how, exactly, did the Badgers hang 70 on a team that was favored to win by three points? By playing as though they had nothing to lose and opening up the playbook with a pizzazz rarely seen from a typically-vanilla Badgers unit.
It began with a 56-yard touchdown run from third-string running back Melvin Gordon on a jet sweep and ended with a 68-yard scamper from backup James White. In between, Wisconsin out-smarted Nebraska with a boatload of trick plays and gadgets that left the Cornhuskers shell-shocked and silent on the sideline.
Six times during the first half, when Wisconsin was busy establishing a 42-10 lead, the Badgers utilized their version of the wildcat formation known as the “barge.” The team stuck seven offensive linemen and two tight ends on the line, allowing White to take the shotgun snap and run.
When Nebraska (10-3) recognized the formation and pressed up to the line of scrimmage just before halftime, White threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Sam Arneson, adding to the Cornhuskers’ embarrassment.
“Everything went wrong,” Nebraska safety P.J. Smith said. “I’ll put this on the defense. We didn’t step up.”
Wisconsin rushed for 539 yards behind Gordon (216 yards), Montee Ball (202) and White (109). It was the most rushing yards against Nebraska in school history, and when it was over, Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini struggled to find any answers.
“It was like a leaking boat,” he said. “It was one thing after another, one problem after another. You get one fixed and you talk about it. There were some things that we corrected, and it happened again. I’ve never been a part of game like that as a coach.”
The victory avenged Wisconsin’s 30-27 loss at Nebraska back on Sept. 29. In that game, the Badgers took a 27-10 lead but stalled in the second half and couldn’t hold it.
There was no such slowdown on Saturday.
Wisconsin even sneaked in a couple more trick plays, including a 27-yard pass from receiver Jared Abbrederis to quarterback Curt Phillips down to the 1-yard-line. The Badgers also snagged a first down when seven players lined up well to the left of the center, leaving just a man on the ball and two receivers to the right.
“There’s probably a couple we haven’t used yet either that will remain a little secret,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “Our kids have a little bit of fun with it, but it was still the meat and potatoes that got us where we were.”
Saturday’s laugher served as a dramatic change for a Wisconsin team that lost its five games by a combined total of 19 points, including three in overtime. Before Saturday, Wisconsin’s best victory was a two-point squeaker against Utah State. And the reasons for the poor showings seemed too numerous to count.
The Badgers lost six assistant coaches in the offseason. Ball suffered a concussion when he was assaulted in downtown Madison a week before the season started, resulting in a slow start to his year. The offensive line was so terrible that Bielema fired the unit’s coach after two games with the team. Transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien was benched and new starter Joel Stave broke his collarbone, leaving Phillips as the man in charge.
Yet through it all, Wisconsin has now made it back to the Rose Bowl again. And for those who want to question the validity of Wisconsin’s appearance as a third-place team, the Badgers left Indianapolis with a message for Ohio State, Penn State and anybody else with doubts.
“As far as being third in our division, I think it’s important to play by the rules off the field, too,” Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. “And we’re proud of that. We run a clean program. I’m really proud of that, too. We took it as motivation. We knew we were better than a five-loss team. I think today we showed it.”