If there is some advantage to be gleaned — whether tactical or practical — in playing for a second straight conference championship in the same venue, Wisconsin players are clinging to such a hope like grass stains on a football jersey this week.
Five losses this season? So what. A third-place finish in the Leaders Division? Big Deal. Wisconsin has been here, done that when it comes to the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
At least, that’s what the Badgers are telling themselves.
“We’re at a distinct advantage having played there last year, understanding what the game is about and even the practical things like where we’re staying and where we’re practicing,” Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said. “I think the experience helped us last year.”
Last season, Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten championship 42-39 against Michigan State and clinched its spot in the Rose Bowl. Of course, Nebraska players will tell you knowing where the bathrooms are inside Lucas Oil Stadium doesn’t affect the outcome of this year’s game.
Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 in the Big Ten) plays Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) at 8:17 p.m. ET Saturday in Indianapolis, with the winner earning a spot in the Rose Bowl. And for those Badgers touting any kind of advantage, the Cornhuskers would like to point out they have some conference championship game experience, too.
Although Nebraska is playing in its first Big Ten championship, members of the senior class played in two Big 12 title games before the ‘Huskers switched conferences in 2011.
In 2009, Nebraska lost a controversial 13-12 decision to Texas on a last-second field goal when one second was put back on the clock. In 2010, Nebraska lost 23-20 to Oklahoma despite leading 17-0.
“I’ve drawn a lot from it,” Nebraska linebacker Will Compton said. “The first one, we tasted what it was like to win a championship for a second there and then got that whole one-second deal. We felt the winning for a second. In the second game, we had a 17-point lead. (We were) feeling great on the sideline, then had that taken away from us by giving up big plays. I know me personally, I’ve drawn a lot from those games.”
Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini is using those two losses as fuel for his team in the lead-up to this week’s game.
“We’ve been in this situation before,” Pelini said. “Hopefully that’s some extra motivation for us because we fell short in the other two. Two really good football games we weren’t able to make enough plays to win at the end.”
As for Saturday, which team has the advantage on the field once the pageantry and spectacle wears off? Take your pick.
Nebraska edged Wisconsin 30-27 when the teams met Sept. 29 in Lincoln, but the Badgers led 27-10 during the third quarter. Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez accounted for 288 total yards and three touchdowns to lead the comeback victory.
Before the teams’ regular-season game, Badgers defensive end David Gilbert mocked Martinez’s throwing motion by saying he appeared to be “skipping rocks,” adding even more intrigue to a budding rivalry.
“It just rolled off my back,” Martinez said. “Some players said something about it. But other than that, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s football. Everyone talks smack.”
The result this time around could center on defense. Nebraska has the No. 1 passing defense in the country, allowing just 152.1 yards per game, while Wisconsin ranks No. 12 in rushing defense (111.3 yards per game).
Both teams boast talented backfields. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball has rushed for 1,528 yards with 18 touchdowns and set the all-time NCAA FBS touchdown record last week against Penn State with his 79th career score. Backup James White has 693 yards rushing and eight touchdowns but averages 6.7 yards per carry.
Nebraska counters with Ameer Abdullah’s 1,071 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Rex Burkhead, who has missed more than half the season with injuries, has 474 yards and four touchdowns but is Nebraska’s sixth-leading rusher in school history (3,128 yards).
For Wisconsin, a victory on Saturday would go a long way toward justifying the Badgers’ presence in the Big Ten title game. Undefeated Ohio State and Penn State finished ahead of Wisconsin in the Leaders Division, but both are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. That allowed the Badgers to back their way into the championship game despite losing to both Ohio State and Penn State in overtime the past two weeks.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has tried to downplay the notion his team doesn’t belong. While Nebraska has won six consecutive games, Wisconsin has lost three of its last four, all in overtime.
“There’s 10 teams in the Big Ten that would love to be in the position that Nebraska and us are in right now,” Bielema said. “When the two teams take the field on Saturday, neither are going to care how the other team got there or what their record is.”
The difference between winning and losing could be substantial for Wisconsin — from a spot in the prestigious Rose Bowl for a third straight season to a Gator Bowl appearance against the sixth-best SEC team.
Right now, the Badgers aren’t thinking about the ramifications of a loss. They’re trying to gain every advantage possible.
“A lot can be achieved and a lot can be erased if we win this game and go on to the Rose Bowl,” Ball said. “That’s our goal.”