Those questions about Wisconsin simply beating up on weaker opponents? Saturday night — with abandon — the Badgers rendered them irrelevant.
Behind a brilliant performance by quarterback Russell Wilson, the No. 7 Badgers (5-0) dispatched the No. 8 Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-1), 48-17, Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium. Wilson completed 14 of 20 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 32 yards and a touchdown on six attempts. Wisconsin’s offense collectively gained 486 yards, with 231 coming on the ground.
“[The win] is huge for our football team, huge for our program,” Wilson said. “And to play a great game like that against a great team in Nebraska is pretty awesome.”
Saturday night’s game was Nebraska’s first in the Big Ten and common expectations held that the contest would be a stereotypical, grind-it-out Big Ten affair. Initially it was, as Nebraska jumped out to 7-0 and 14-7 leads early in the game, providing Wisconsin its first deficits of the season. The first three touchdowns were all one-yard rushes that capped drives of nine plays or longer, evidence of the strength of the two defenses.
But after Husker running back Rex Burkhead scored with 12:45 remaining in the second quarter to put Nebraska ahead 14-7, the Badgers scored five unanswered touchdowns, a total of 34 points that was marred only by a blocked extra point on the second score.
“It was early in the game and we knew we were going to face some adversity — that’s what we talked about all week,” Wilson said. “So we knew there were going to be some ups and downs, and we just had to keep working at weathering the storm. That’s my job as a quarterback.”
The victory capped a week of arguably unprecedented anticipation on campus, especially as ESPN’s “College GameDay” pregame show aired live from Madison for the second consecutive year.
“It was really a fun week to be head coach at the University of Wisconsin,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Our players, I think, embraced the week and the chance to be on the national stage.”
Running back Montee Ball scored Wisconsin’s first touchdown with 1:27 remaining in the first quarter to even the score at 7-7, and then added the second of his four scores at the 9:48 mark in the second quarter to bring the Badgers within a point of the Huskers at 14-13. Ball finished the game with four touchdowns — matching a career-high he set in two consecutive weeks last season — and 151 yards on 30 carries (5.0 yards per).
“I think that in this type of game, this physical of a game, Montee was kind of gassed up to play,” Bielema said. “I could tell all week he was very excited. He popped a guy Thursday in practice, and I was standing there with somebody and was like, ‘Yeah, I think Montee is going to be ready.’”
After a 36-yard pass from Wilson to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and a 46-yard toss from Wilson to wide receiver Nick Toon, the Badgers entered halftime leading 27-14.
From there, Wisconsin seemed to enter cruise control in putting Nebraska out of the game. Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez struggled to mount any comeback for Nebraska’s offense, finishing the game with 176 yards and three interceptions on 11-for-22 passing. Burkhead was arguably the Husker’s most productive weapon, gaining 96 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries (5.3 yards per). Receiver Jamal Turner also finished with five receptions for 84 yards.
The Huskers scored just once in the second half, a 32-yard field goal with 13:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, after Wilson and Ball had each added touchdown runs in the third. Ball scored the game’s final points with 5:11 remaining in the game, from 15 yards out.
“You know this week, I’ve heard about a big game, a big stage, all of these big things,” Bielema said. “All we have is a big opportunity, and what are we going to do with it? I think [the players] answered the best.”