Wisconsin and Nebraska have a short history — but it’s already a turbulent one.
In 2011, the Badgers (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) welcomed the Huskers (10-2, 7-1) to the conference in a rather insulting manner with a 48-17 victory. One year later, Nebraska evened the score with a 30-27 decision as Wisconsin made its first trip to Lincoln since 1973.
With the regular season behind them, Wisconsin and Nebraska will face each other once again in Indianapolis Saturday night, but this time the victor claims a coveted Big Ten Title.
It was a matchup that was highly anticipated a year ago when Nebraska first joined the Big Ten, but with three conference losses, the Huskers watched the inaugural Big Ten championship game from Lincoln. But this year, with only one conference loss, Nebraska finally earned its spot to vie for the conference title.
It’s difficult to say the same for Wisconsin. The Badgers benefitted from Ohio State and Penn State’s 2012 postseason ineligibility as they dropped four conference contests — Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, the last three of which were overtime decisions — and as a result placed third in the Leaders Division.
After clinching a trip to Indy with a dominating 62-14 win over Indiana, Wisconsin went on a two-game overtime losing streak to end its regular season. For UW, Saturday night isn’t just about winning its third-straight Big Ten Title. It’s also about proving it belongs there in the first place.
“We know what our record is right now,” senior defensive end Brendan Kelly said. “We’re not repping it hard, we’re not real proud of it, but we’re going to go in there with everything we’ve got and try to earn some respect. We’ve been in a lot of tough games this season, we’ve been through a lot. … Being in the position we are to still have the opportunity to do what we came here to do this year is unbelieveable.”
Throughout the 2012 season, the Badgers didn’t have an easy ride. Initially, the offensive line crumbled at seemingly the slightest push like a wall of toothpicks. In addition, the Badgers could not find consistency under center and eventually UW head coach Bret Bielema benched the opening day starting quarterback, Danny O’Brien, in favor of redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
With a 3-1 record through the nonconference season and a new offensive line coach, UW felt the start of conference play would mark an important turnaround in its season. But it travelled to Lincoln and left with another loss.
In the Adidas-labeled “unrivaled” matchup (the first of two), UW jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, after which the offense stalled and momentum slowly leaked over to Nebraska’s bench. Eventually, the Huskers could not be slowed down as quarterback Taylor Martinez used both his feet and his arm to lead Nebraska to 440 total offensive yards compared to UW’s 295. Martinez himself ran for 107 yards and a touchdown and completed 17 of his 29 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
Wisconsin kept things close, but a missed field goal and missed extra point by freshman kicker Jack Russell made the difference. On Sept. 29, Nebraska completed the comeback for a 30-27 win.
Since then, UW lost Stave for the season to a broken collarbone and opted to start its third quarterback of the season, embattled fifth-year senior Curt Phillips.
But, as has been a constant in an otherwise turbulent season, the Wisconsin defense has also transformed into one of the best in the Big Ten. During the regular season, Wisconsin allowed only 18.1 points per game (second only to Michigan State in the Big Ten) and currently boasts the No. 2 rushing defense in the conference, allowing an average of just 111.3 yards a game.
The Badger team making the trip to Indianapolis is a much different unit than the one that ventured to Lincoln at the end of September.
“I think we’ve certainly grown a lot,” junior center Travis Frederick said. “Here at Wisconsin, we talk about getting better every week, and I think with the exception of [Penn State], we really have grown as a team. We’ve certainly learned from our mistakes last week in the film sessions we’ve had this week. I think we’ve grown as a team and have gotten better at certain things — our run game is working better. We’re just fitting into our roles a little better than we were at that point.”
While UW went through its own tumultuous season to earn its way into the title game, Nebraska also went on to finish as one of the best teams in the Big Ten. With Ohio State ineligible, the Huskers boast the best conference record at 7-1 and one of the best offenses.
Through the regular season, Nebraska averaged 35.4 points per game — second-best in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. That offense has also amassed an average of 460.9 yards per game (best in the Big Ten), largely due to an average of 252.5 rushing yards per game (also tops in the conference and No. 8 in the nation).
With a gift-wrapped trip to the Big Ten Championship game Saturday, the Badgers know what to expect of the atmosphere and everything leading up to game time. They have been there before and say they won’t let themselves get wrapped up in the emotions of returning to Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Us being familiar with the area and the stadium and how everything is going to work out — its definitely an advantage for us,” senior safety Shelton Johnson said. “It kind of removes all the distraction and the luster of it being the Big Ten Championship game. Us having seen it already, it remove that distraciton and kind of eases you out.”
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