In an article I wrote earlier in the week, I picked the Nebraska Cornhuskers to beat the Wisconsin Badgers, 28-24, in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Clearly, I was wrong.
On Saturday night, the Wisconsin Badgers brutally dismantled the 12th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers, 70-31, to win their 2nd straight Big Ten Championship game and clinch a 3rd consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.
And while this game was memorable for Wisconsin fans, it was a far cry from last year’s Wisconsin-Michigan State, down-to-the-wire classic.
Wisconsin would strike first less than 2 minutes into the game on freshman Melvin Gordon’s 56-yard touchdown run. Then, on Nebraska’s first offensive play, Marcus Cromartie would intercept Taylor Martinez’s pass and run in 29 yards for the pick 6.
Then and there it looked like it was going to be Wisconsin’s night, but Nebraska wasn’t done yet.
On their next drive, the Cornhuskers faced a 3rd and 11, when Martinez would strike with a sensational run. It looked like he would be brought down well behind the line of scrimmage, but he weaved his way through defenders, found a seam, and he was gone on a 76-yard TD dash. A 32-yard field goal later in the 1st quarter would pull the Cornhuskers within 4. But after that, it was ALL Badgers.
Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon would combine to form a three-headed monster in this game that was reminiscent of when Ball, White and John Clay dominated defenses just a couple years ago. Wisconsin’s running back corps went through Nebraska’s defense like a hot knife through butter. The Cornhuskers were at the mercy of these 3, heck White even had a TD pass in the 2nd quarter.
Even when Wisconsin took a 28-10 early in the 2nd quarter, I couldn’t help but think back to the 1st meeting this season between these teams, when the Badgers held a 17-point lead in the 2nd quarter and went on to lose. But there would be no such comeback this time around for Nebraska, as Wisconsin would put the pedal to the floor and didn’t look back. By halftime, they had a 42-10 lead and the game was essentially in hand.
The 2nd half wasn’t much better for the Nebraska D, as Wisconsin continued to run right over them. The Badgers continued to pile up points, which Wisconsin is no stranger to under coach Bret Bielema. Bielema has been criticized in the past for running up the score, but that was not the case in this game. The Badgers didn’t even attempt a single pass in the 2nd half, and the Badger running backs aren’t going to take any knees.
Staying on the topic of the Wisconsin backfield trio, they had a historic game on Saturday.
For the 1st time in Wisconsin history, 3 players rushed for at least 100 yards, and 2 played rushed for 200+ yards (Gordon, Ball). They also combined to rush for a total of 539 yards, the 4th-highest total in school history. And the 70 points the Badgers scored? That tied a conference championship record for most points scored, matching Texas’ performance in the 2005 Big 12 Championship Game.
But it wasn’t just a historic night for the team; Montee Ball reached some individual milestones as well. Ball broke Travis Prentice’s Football Bowl Subdivision record for most career rushing touchdowns, bringing his total to 79. He also tied Prentice’s record for most career games with multiple touchdowns at 25, reached 5,000 rushing yards, and was named the MVP of the game.
The running backs aren’t the only ones who deserve credit for the blowout; I have to give props to the coaches also. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has had a rough first season, replacing Paul Chryst, who was an offensive mastermind during his time in Madison. The Badger offense had been painfully inconsistent throughout the season, but they came to play on Saturday. Canada was able to concoct an offensive gameplan that the Nebraska Cornhuskers simply had no answer for.
However, the emphatic win wasn’t enough to convince some people that the Badgers belong in the Rose Bowl, and their criticisms aren’t without merit. Wisconsin will be the 1st team with 5 losses to reach the Rose Bowl, plus many felt they didn’t belong in the conference championship game. They went 4-4 in conference play, only making it to Indianapolis because Penn State and Ohio State were ineligible for postseason play.
But quite frankly, the Badger coaches and players don’t give a damn what they think.
The look of sheer joy on the faces of the Wisconsin sideline told the entire story. Bret Bielema was doused with Gatorade, and had an enormous smile as he celebrated with his players and athletic director and Wisconsin coaching legend Barry Alvarez. They know that they played one hell of a game, and feel that they without question have earned their trip to Pasadena.
Still, their work is far from finished. They now look ahead to their Rose Bowl opponent, the Stanford Cardinal.
Stanford’s season has been spectacular, as they’ve shrugged off the loss of Andrew Luck and managed to make their way to Pasadena, something Luck never accomplished during his impressive college career. The Cardinal have a defense that will pose a much bigger challenge for the Wisconsin offense. Matt Canada will have to dial up something special again if they want to have success against the Stanford D.
Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since Michigan (1976-78) to advance to 3 straight Rose Bowls, but they’ll try to avoid meeting the same fate as those Wolverines, who lost all 3 games. The Badgers will be major underdogs when they go up against the Cardinal, but they certainly won’t mind. The critics will all say they don’t belong in Pasadena, but that will just provide more inspiration for this team. So many doubted them (myself included) in the week leading up to the Big Ten Championship, and you could see they played with a chip on their shoulder. They’ll have to play with the same mindset if they want to finally give Bielema his first Rose Bowl victory.
There will be plenty of people who will be dismissing the Wisconsin Badgers and not giving them a chance of winning against a much higher-ranked team.
But this time, don’t count me among the doubters.