BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — No matter the situation or the makeup of his team, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema likes to deliver a pointed message the night before a game to serve a purpose. Whether it’s to motivate his squad or to deliver a teaching point, the message Friday night was simple: opportunity.
Leading up to Wisconsin’s chance to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game just an hour up the road at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Field, Bielema wrote down approximately 20 programs that had been involved in Bowl Championship Series discussions the last several years but have fallen far off the map in 2013.
Teams like Arkansas, Auburn and Virginia Tech — traditionally strong programs — will either spend the bowl season in a second-tier game or, worse yet, at home for the holidays. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has a chance to play for another league title despite three agonizing defeats and heaps of adversity.
“A lot of times people would let go of the rope in this situation or back away from the ways in front of them,” Bielema said. “(I wanted) our guys to charge ahead with full speed.”
It’s evident that the message was well-received. Not only are the Badgers going to play for a conference championship for the third consecutive season after a 62-14 thrashing of Indiana at Memorial Stadium Saturday, but Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2 in the Big Ten) also clinched a game against either Nebraska or Michigan by setting a school record with 564 rushing yards — 10 yards short of the conference mark.
“We’ve gone through a lot of adversity,” junior center Travis Frederick said. “The amount of adversity and how you handle it defines you as a man and as a champion. For us to get a chance to go through that, really back and put ourselves in the position that we’re in is a great opportunity for us.”
Bielema didn’t want to compare the squad he’ll be taking to Indy in three weeks to Wisconsin teams of the past. But the Badgers (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) who showed up in Bloomington on Saturday were a carbon copy of the program over the last 20 years.
All 69 yards on Wisconsin’s first series came on the ground, foreshadowing how the Badgers would attack Indiana and its 107th-ranked rush defense. On the board in the offensive line’s meeting room, someone wrote the number “400” as goal No. 1, signifying the desire to break that mark for the 17th time in school history.
Senior tailback Montee Ball stumbled upon that stat by accident when his meeting room was locked and he went into the offensive linemen’s room to watch film.
“That meant a lot,” Ball said. “As running backs, we love it. We didn’t want to let the offensive line down.”
He didn’t, as his 198 rushing yards marked his fourth career game of at least 100 rushing yards against the hapless Hoosiers. He also lurched within one of the NCAA’s all-time touchdown record of 78, scoring on runs of 10, 1 and 49 yards.
In his last nine games in November, Ball is averaging 179.1 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
“A couple of those runs were out of his mind, breaking tackles, staying alive, elephant crawling with one arm on the ground,” Bielema said. “He was just possessed.”
Junior James White chipped in with 161 yards on 14 carries and two scores, both on runs of more than 50 yards. Melvin Gordon rushed for 96 yards and a score. And senior quarterback Curt Phillips ran for 68 yards and had his first collegiate touchdown in the first quarter in his first start.
When at full strength, Wisconsin’s running game can deliver a dagger at any time. Case in point: White at the end of the first half.
With Wisconsin seeing potential for an inside handoff on third-and-16, White’s path was a thing of beauty. Originally running to the right, White cut back to the middle, made one defender miss, found a seam among four players and hit the jets.
Instead of stopping Wisconsin on third-and-16, Indiana trudged to the locker room down 24-7.
“They are a great team running the ball,” Indiana defensive tackle Adam Replogle said. “They are a great team; we knew what they were. It’s Wisconsin. They’re big, they’re physical and they have a great run game.”
Not only did Wisconsin deliver the quick strike, but it also showed its running game can be methodical. Getting the ball to start the third quarter, Wisconsin executed an 11-play drive that chewed up the first 6 minutes, 11 seconds of the clock.
Of UW’s 10 scoring drives, five were at least 3 minutes, 50 seconds, as the Badgers dominated the Hoosiers in time of possession: 39:27 to 20:33.
Not only did Wisconsin’s tailbacks get production, but the Badgers also used the still flexible legs of Phillips. Despite three ACL surgeries, Phillips made plays with his arm and his legs. He scrambled 52 yards in the third quarter, outrunning defenders and executing a stiff arm to set up a UW field goal.
He made blocks downfield and ran interference on some of UW’s longest touchdown runs, but the play Phillips was proudest of was his 17-yard completion to Derek Watt on fourth-and-two, one of only seven passes he threw. Not because of the result but because Phillips stood in and took a hit while still delivering the pass.
“I came trying to act like I had nothing to lose and just have fun,” said Phillips, who had 20 tickets at his disposal for family and friends. “I definitely did.”
Thanks to Phillips’ management of the offense, the last two games — against bowl-ineligible Ohio State (10-0, 6-0) and Penn State (6-4, 4-2) — are now a formality, but don’t expect anyone in Wisconsin’s locker room to admit that.
“It would bother us (if Wisconsin goes to Indianapolis not as division champs),” Ball said. “Obviously, the other teams are handicapped, but we want to go to Indy because we won the big games.”
For a team searching for its first statement win and another league championship, November is off to a good start.
“I don’t think we’ve had (a statement win) yet,” Frederick said. “We’ve played some close games. We’ve lost really close. For us, it’s just the matter of going out doing the things we need to do. Hopefully that will help us make a statement.”