INDIANAPOLIS — Surely it was just one lucky run from the fuel-injected legs of redshirt freshman tailback Melvin Gordon.
Then, a bobbled pass off the hands of the Cornhuskers’ Kenny Bell found the outstretched arms of the Badgers’ Marcus Cromartie.
As the redshirt senior raced 29 yards to the end zone with the ball held out for the fans to see, Wisconsin was suddenly up 14-0 less than three minutes into the game.
But this could not be for real; it had to be another dream destined for doom.
Then came the reality check, a moment when it appeared order had finally been restored.
Taylor Martinez evaded a Brendan Kelly sack, pulling every acrobatic move he could muster to sprint across the field for a 76-yard score. But Gordon answered with an explosive run down the right sideline where he refused to leave his footing even as he climbed inside the 10-yard line, a punch-in-the-face score coming with two seconds left in the half. And so the dream continued.
Saturday night, it was exactly the converse of that word — surreal — that offered the best descriptor of Wisconsin’s 70-31 thrashing of Nebraska for its third-straight Big Ten title. The offense was a highlight-reel machine, and a 32-point lead had Wisconsin all but crowned champions by halftime.
But at Lucas Oil Stadium, the dream continued, growing more unbelievable with each miraculous score. This could not be the same team that dropped three of its last four games in overtime, the one whose defining lapse was closing out games after building promising leads.
This time around, finishing was never even an issue. The crushing of the Big Red — who had just two losses coming into the game — was so dominating that UW eluded its most prevalent hurdle by never needing to jump it.
“Last game we kind of dropped the ball a little bit and let Nebraska rally back,” said Gordon, who finished with a game- and career-high 216 yards on nine carries (that’s 24 yards per touch). “But we just tried to keep our foot on the pedal this time.”
Keep the foot on the gas Wisconsin did, piling up another 28 points in the second half. When it mattered most, when the stakes were at their highest and a 7-5 team eyed a third-straight New Year’s in Pasadena, it finally fit the puzzle pieces together.
There were moments this season when the offense soared, when Joel Stave looked like the savior for a team with which fans increasingly lost patience. There were moments when the defense looked like it could stop the Big Ten’s best offenses, shutting down opponents in the red zone with impressive vigor.
Players offered the simplest of explanations for what created this shocking offensive explosion. The eight rushing touchdowns and 539 yards on the ground? Those were the product of everyone from offensive linemen to wide receivers finishing out their blocks, driving defenders down the field as Ball, Gordon and James White blazed their way into the end zone.
The trick plays, including a pass from tailback White out of the “Barge” formation to reserve tight end Sam Arneson in the back of the end zone? Every player executing his assigned role and being exactly where he was supposed to be on that particular play.
When Bret Bielema arrived for his pregame press conference Friday, he took the stage with a noticeable sense of excitement, as if he knew what was ahead for this team. And that vindictive win arrived when Nebraska encountered a perfect storm.
“We love when people say you can’t,” Bielema said postgame. “We heard it from a lot of different people. … You just quietly store it away. Kind of walk softly and carry a big stick. When you have a chance to take a swing, take it hard.”
It appeared that stick was loaded with the pain of each heartbreaking, game-winning score surrendered to an opponent this year. Bielema’s team swung it ever so violently for 60 minutes best described as pure football bliss for any fan of Wisconsin football — with stellar blocking from the offensive line and smashmouth runs anchoring touchdown-producing drives.
In an undressing so thorough that Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini started his postgame press conference by apologizing to “everybody associated with Nebraska football,” it was impossible not to wonder where this team was for the last three months.
Before us Saturday night was the team that matched the sky-high preseason dreams of a team rolling off back-to-back Big Ten titles. The season will end in the place all those prognosticators expected — the sun-kissed hills of Pasadena.
When asked if his third-consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl would be more special after fighting through a season littered with disappointment, redshirt junior Travis Frederick countered with a quick response.
“You know what would make it really special is a win this time,” Frederick said.
If the offensive fireworks fans watched Saturday night were more than the perfect alignment of Wisconsin’s football stars for four quarters, I like the Badgers’ chances. If Saturday night proved anything, it was that this team is one built to not only succeed, but indeed flourish at the season’s most pivotal moments.