INDIANAPOLIS — Sometimes, you show up to a stadium or turn on the television with absolutely no idea how a game will play out. Pundits say it should be close, but who really knows until they take the field?
That’s the beauty of sports.
Wisconsin entered Saturday’s Big Ten championship against Nebraska as a slight underdog and unloaded on the Cornhuskers with an offensive performance we may never see again in the title game. When the dust settled, Wisconsin crushed Nebraska 70-31, using trick plays and a running game that looked as good as it has at any point in program history.
Not bad from a team that finished in third place in the Leaders Division and wasn’t really supposed to be in Indianapolis.
Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s performance in the Big Ten championship:
Passing offense: BAs we’ve seen a few times this season, Wisconsin really had no need to air the ball out with the way it was tearing apart a defense on the ground.
Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips completed 6 of 8 pass attempts for 71 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Really, the key was that Phillips didn’t make any mistakes to give Nebraska any semblance of hope early in the game.
A special shout out goes to Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who took the blame early in the season for the team’s struggles to move the ball. He dialed up some of the most unique plays you’ll see Saturday night, including passes from a Wisconsin running back and wide receiver.
Tailback James White completed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Sam Arneson out of the Badgers’ “barge” formation. And receiver Jared Abbrederis found Phillips for a 27-yard pass down to the Cornhuskers 1-yard-line.
The creative juices certainly were flowing — as were the points on the scoreboard for Wisconsin.
Rushing offense: A-plus
Given the setting, this was perhaps the most dominating rushing game in the history of Wisconsin’s program — and that’s saying something from a school that has experienced its share of running dominance.
The Badgers carried the ball 50 times against Nebraska for 539 yards and eight touchdowns. Yes, Wisconsin’s rushing offense scored eight times.
There have been other impressive performances this season from the Badgers’ running backs. Wisconsin set a school record when it gained 564 yards against Indiana, and it played well when it rushed for 467 yards against Purdue. But those were middling opponents the Badgers were expected to handle. Saturday’s outcome came as much more of a surprise.
For the first time in school history, three Wisconsin running backs rushed for at least 100 yards. It also was the first time two Badgers tailbacks rushed for 200 yards in the same game.
Melvin Gordon finished with 216 yards rushing with a touchdown, Montee Ball had 202 yards rushing with three touchdowns, and James White tallied 109 yards rushing with four touchdowns.
The 539 rushing yards represented the most ever allowed by a Nebraska team.
There’s a lot of history at both programs, and to see these kinds of records set really says something about how historic a night it was for Wisconsin.
Passing defense: A-minus
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez never really found a rhythm against Wisconsin’s defense. He completed 17 of 33 passes for 184 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions and spent much of the game playing catch-up with his team trailing by a significant margin.
Badgers senior cornerback Marcus Cromartie helped his team begin on the right foot when he intercepted Martinez and returned the pick for a touchdown, giving Wisconsin a 14-0 lead three minutes into the game. It was Cromartie’s first career interception.
The touchdown was Wisconsin’s first defensive score this season. The last defensive touchdown came from Aaron Henry against Northwestern on Nov. 27, 2010.
And later in Saturday’s game, cornerback Devin Smith tallied his fourth interception of the season.
Wisconsin may have allowed a season-high 31 points, but it was still one of the team’s best overall defensive efforts of the year. Plus, scoring 70 points makes those 31 points look more like 14.
Rushing defense: C-plus
Martinez may have struggled some in the passing game, but he made Wisconsin’s defense look downright silly at times with his legs. He even produced one of the top highlights of the entire day in the sports world.
With his team trailing 14-0, Martinez dropped back to pass and appeared ready to absorb a sack for a massive loss. But he eluded defensive end Brendan Kelly in the backfield, found the edge against defensive end David Gilbert and zipped his way to a 76-yard touchdown with 10:58 left in the first quarter.
Martinez covered well over 100 yards on the run, and it appeared for all the world that the score would turn the tide of the game.
As it turned out, Wisconsin’s offense was only just beginning.
Still, Martinez carried 19 times for 140 yards with two touchdowns. Nebraska finished the night with 44 rushes for 282 yards and four touchdowns, and the Cornhuskers averaged 6.4 yards per carry.
Special teams: B-plus
Wisconsin was solid all around in the special teams game, and there was really nothing particularly amazing that took place. The only hitch was when kicker Kyle French missed a 45-yard field goal try with 2:32 remaining in the first half.
Punter Drew Meyer kicked three times and averaged 47 yards per attempt. He had a long of 61 yards and pinned two of his kicks inside Nebraska’s 20.
French handled his kickoffs well, with nine of 10 kicks resulting in a touchback.
How can the final grade be anything but this given how well Wisconsin played?
For Badgers fans that were despondent over the team finishing in third place in the division this season, Saturday offered a reason to celebrate. It was Wisconsin’s best win of the season, and it sent to team to the Rose Bowl, where it will face Stanford.
Stanford is the likely favorite in that game, but who really cares? Wisconsin is certainly capable of beating the Cardinal out in Pasadena.
In a wacky season unlike any in Wisconsin history, it certainly would be fitting to end with a Rose Bowl victory. Not even the spectacular Badgers teams of the past two seasons can say they accomplished that feat.