In the weeks leading up to the Big Ten Championship Game, the Wisconsin football team had made a habit of starting fast and finishing slow.
No. 12 Nebraska (10-3, 7-1 Big Ten), meanwhile, had built up a penchant for comeback victories — not the best combination for the Badgers (8-5, 4-4).
But, it turns out if you start fast enough, it might not matter how you finish.
In their 70-31 Rose Bowl-clinching victory, the Badgers forced the Huskers into catch-up mode so soon they had to abandon a running game that featured two of the conference’s best athletes — running backs Ameer Abdullah and Rex Burkhead — before first quarter’s end.
That allowed the Wisconsin defense to concentrate on and contain the elusive quarterback Taylor Martinez and twist Nebraska’s offense into tricky third-and-long situations.
“The biggest thing was getting them in third down,” defensive end Brendan Kelly said. “We knew if we could get them into a third-down situation, we could cause some confusion, some pressure up front and get loose.”
The Huskers faced a 14-0 deficit by the time they took their second offensive snap and by the time four minutes had gone by in the second quarter, the gap widened to 18 points.
With Wisconsin scoring swiftly, Abdullah and Burkhead practically became afterthoughts as Nebraska sought to keep pace by abandoning the read-option attack.
Nebraska handed the ball off just five times in the first half. Abdullah, a small but fleet-footed back, received just one carry for no gain while Burkhead, the power I-back of the Husker offense, took four carries for 32 yards.
The pair entered the game averaging a combined 30.8 carries a game.
Burkhead eventually finished with 11 carries for 61 yards and Abdullah with five attempts for 18 yards. They totaled three catches for 29 yards.
Martinez, whom Wisconsin players praised after the game, threw the ball 14 times for 96 yards on nine completions and opted to run 11 other times in the first half. Take away a stunning, zig-zagging 76-yard touchdown run, and the junior quarterback averaged four yards per carry in the period.
That simply wasn’t enough to keep up with a Badger team that assembled a game-sealing 42-10 lead at halftime.
“Anytime you can get a team like that down, that loves to run the football and they got to rely on their passing game — and not necessarily their play-action pass game but their drop-back pass game — you feel a lot better,” UW defensive coordinator Chris Ash said.
With Burkhead and Abdullah both non-options, Wisconsin focused on sending constant pressure against Martinez.
In the two teams’ previous meeting on Sept. 29, Wisconsin failed to establish a presence in the backfield, collecting a sack and two other tackles for loss.
This time around, however, the Badgers penetrated the Husker frontline for five sacks and three other TFLs.
Defensive ends Tyler Dippel and Kelly each posted a pair of sacks, with linebacker Mike Taylor nabbing another for himself.
Martinez, always willing to run, was continuously chased out of the pocket. Multiple times, with no man open, he elected to run but had little room to make anything happen. His No. 1 target, wide receiver Kenny Bell, had a quiet two catches for 14 yards on the night.
With few options to utilize, Nebraska found itself facing a third-and-10 or longer in four of its seven first half drives. The Huskers converted only one of them, when Martinez scored from 76 yards out. The other three drives ended in a field goal, a Martinez fumble and a pick-six for UW’s Marcus Cromartie.
Wisconsin frequently jostled its players around in the box, with some defensive linemen standing upright in a two-point stance, disguising blitzes with zone coverage as well.
“We were trying to back off the ball and not really show what we were doing there,” Dippel said of the defense’s third-down tactics. “They have a very good system [with] their cadence; they like to get people to show their blitzes. We tried to disguise as much as we could.”
More turnovers only made matters worse. With Nebraska approaching midfield late in the second quarter, defensive end David Gilbert popped the ball loose from Martinez’s grasp with Taylor pouncing on it soon after.
And on Nebraska’s first drive of the second half, Martinez threw an off-balance pass under significant pressure, giving cornerback Devin Smith an easy interception return to the 9-yard line and setting up another score.
“I thought we had one of the best weeks of preparation on the defense,” said middle linebacker Chris Borland, who returned from a two-game absence to lead the team with eight tackles. “Really proud of the defensive effort from the D-line, to the linebackers, to the secondary.
“It’s one of our best we’ve put forth all year in the first half, especially.”
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