Remember all that talk this week about Indiana’s biggest football game in decades? Forget about it. There’s a reason Indiana is a basketball school.
Wisconsin obliterated Indiana, 62-14, on Saturday in Bloomington to clinch a berth in the Big Ten championship game. The Badgers (7-3, 4-2 in Big Ten play) now own the tiebreaker over the Hoosiers (4-6, 2-4) with two regular season games remaining.
Indiana could have earned an inside track to the title game with a victory. Of course, that went out the window about the time Wisconsin running back James White scored a 69-yard touchdown with seconds remaining in the first half — when the Badgers weren’t really even trying to score.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from Saturday’s game:
1. The rushing attack is scary good.
How much of Wisconsin’s run-game dominance was thanks to its offensive line and how much was Indiana’s atrocious defense? It’s hard to put a number on that one. Either way, the Badgers were record breakers on Saturday.
Wisconsin broke a 38-year-old single-game school record for rushing yards. The Badgers gained 564 yards rushing, eclipsing the team-best mark of 551 set Nov. 16, 1974 against Northwestern. It also matched the third-highest rushing output by a Big Ten team in the post-World War II era.
The Badgers averaged 8.8 yards per carry on their 64 rushing attempts, nearly toppling the school record of 8.91 yards per carry set against Hawaii on Nov. 30, 1996.
On Saturday, running back Montee Ball gained 198 yards with three touchdowns, James White 161 yards with two touchdowns and Melvin Gordon 96 yards with one touchdown.
Even quarterback Curt Phillips got in on the act, gaining 68 yards on seven carries, which included a 50-yard scamper. And you know it’s a good day when your team’s fourth-string running back — Jeff Lewis — is in there scoring touchdowns. Lewis recorded a five-yard touchdown run with 3:50 left in the fourth quarter to put the finishing touches on the scoring.
Ball’s three touchdowns put him at 78 for his career, one shy of tying the all-time NCAA record held by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio).
Indiana entered the day with the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing 208.4 yards per game. The Hoosiers won’t be climbing out of the basement in that category after this week.
2. Offense is nice, but Wisconsin’s defense held strong, too.
It’s easy to point out Wisconsin’s eight touchdowns against Indiana and forget that the defense played a role in this victory. But the Hoosiers entered Saturday’s contest averaging 33.1 points per game and scored their fewest points of the season.
Indiana had scored in 16 consecutive quarters until being held scoreless in the first quarter against Wisconsin. Included in that four-game streak was a 49-point effort against undefeated Ohio State, which came during a three-point loss.
Wisconsin won the turnover battle against Indiana by three, which certainly helped to deflate any IU momentum. Badgers linebacker Chris Borland recovered a fumble in the second quarter, cornerback Devin Smith intercepted a pass and so did linebacker Conor O’Neill.
The Badgers have quietly put together a standout season on defense despite suffering three separate three-point losses. Wisconsin entered the day ranked No. 16 in the country in total defense (311.3 yards) and No. 17 in rushing defense (108.1 yards). On Saturday, Wisconsin surrendered 294 total yards and 61 rushing yards.
3. Curt Phillips can lead a winning football team.
Before Saturday, we knew Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips was a tough guy who had persevered through three ACL surgeries on his right knee. But we didn’t know what kind of quarterback he was as a starter.
He wasn’t asked to be the reincarnation of Case Keenum, but he made smart decisions in the passing game and was effective enough to lead a victory. Phillips completed 4 of 7 passes for 41 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Only two of those throws came after halftime.
Hey, it didn’t necessarily make for scintillating football all the time, but that’s OK. Phillips took care of the football and earned a win in his first career start. He also showed off his mobility by scrambling out of the pocket, which adds another element to Wisconsin’s offense.
The Badgers are guaranteed four more games this season — two in the regular season, one in the Big Ten title game and one in a bowl — and Phillips showed he’s the man for the starting job.
4. Playing Indiana cures a lot of ills.
If you’re a Wisconsin fan, you can feel pretty comfortable in chalking up a “W” when you see Indiana on the schedule. And the past three seasons haven’t even been close.
During that span, Wisconsin has put up 83, 59 and now 62 points on Indiana, outscoring the Hoosiers 204-41. A couple other statistics are just astounding from those three games.
Wisconsin has averaged 575.7 yards of total offense against Indiana since 2010. The Badgers also are averaging 8.46 yards per play over the three games.
Can’t Wisconsin play Indiana every week?
5. Wisconsin is going back to the Big Ten championship game.
It hasn’t been the smoothest of rides this season for the Badgers. From coach Bret Bielema hiring six new assistants to firing his offensive line coach after two games to benching his starting quarterback, some sort of problem has persisted all year.
Yet here is Wisconsin, returning to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. Certainly, the Badgers were aided by playing in a terrible Leaders Division that only included Indiana, Purdue and Illinois as eligible teams. Ohio State and Penn State can’t compete for the Big Ten title because of NCAA sanctions.
But you can only work with the hand you’ve been dealt. And this one, though it hasn’t always come up aces, has to feel rewarding for Bielema and company.