INDIANAPOLIS — A year after enacting revenge on Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten championship game, the Wisconsin football team returns to Indianapolis Saturday in a slightly different situation.
Despite finishing third in the Leaders Division, the Badgers (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) have a chance at a redemptive win once again after a 30-27 loss to Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium Sept. 29. After that loss, the second of four defeats by a field goal or less this season, UW head coach Bret Bielema emphasized that the late breakdowns can be swept away with a single victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“The one thing we stress to our kids this week is respect because we haven’t been able to finish those games in a positive way, it can be washed away with one opportunity this Saturday,” Bielema said at a pregame press conference Friday. “You win this, you get an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl.
“Not a lot of people write about runner-ups. That’s the part that our guys have to embrace. It’s a chance to become a champion. It’s a one‑game playoff.”
Starting under center for Wisconsin will be embattled quarterback Curt Phillips, who tore his ACL three separate times and will make just his fourth career start against the Huskers.
After arriving at Lucas Oil Stadium — home of the Indianapolis Colts — Friday, Phillips took over the former home of a future NFL Hall of Famer.
“He was a [Peyton] Manning fan growing up, so we put him in his locker, what used to be his locker we were told,” Bielema said. “Gave him his own spot there, he was like a king bee sitting in there today.”
Bielema reflects on season
In a season loaded with hurdles and roadblocks, never did Wisconsin appear more in search of its identity than after Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson the day after a week 2 loss to Oregon State.
UW’s head coach noted at the time that as a young assistant he never understood why head coaches waited until the end of the season to make coaching changes. But Bielema said if he never made the surprising early-season move, this team would not have a shot at earning a third-straight trip to the Rose Bowl.
“I made a mistake and I had to correct that situation as fast as I could to move forward,” he said. “I’m probably even more confident now that if I hadn’t changed as fast as I could have, we’d never be here today.”
Guiding the program to back-to-back 11-win seasons that allowed Wisconsin to scale the Big Ten’s social ladder over the last two years, Bielema said the rocky 2012 campaign helped him grow as a head coach. An FBS-leading three overtime losses and three starting quarterbacks later, UW’s head coach said it was precisely those challenges that separated 2012 from his six previous seasons as head coach.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed and hurt as much in one year coaching a team as this group,” Bielema said. “They give me everything they’ve got.”
Two of Wisconsin’s most essential pieces on both ends of the field will return to the field for the rematch with the Huskers, Bielema said Friday.
Middle linebacker Chris Borland — who missed the last two games after suffering a hamstring injury against Indiana — and No. 1 wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will both be back at full-strength Saturday. The redshirt junior receiver suffered a head injury in an overtime defeat to Penn State last weekend.
Bielema noted that it is particularly important to have Borland, the mental anchor of UW’s defense, back against Nebraska’s explosive dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez.
“He’s the quarterback of your defense, he makes a lot of the calls, all the communications,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that we all know can make a lot of plays and he gives you an advantage that is truly one of the — I’ve been a linebacker coach my whole career, he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around.”