INDIANAPOLIS? – The Badgers didn’t look like a team that was supposedly reeling coming into Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.
Instead, Wisconsin (8-5, 4-4 Big Ten) looked like an offensive juggernaut, manhandling Nebraska (10-3, 7-1) 70-31 at Lucas Oil Stadium as three running backs amassed 100 yards or more for the first time in school history and handed the program its third-straight Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth.
“I apologize to everybody associated with Nebraska football with how we coached, how we played and it’s not acceptable,” Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said.
Doak Walker Award finalist Montee Ball cruised to 202 yards and three touchdowns, junior James White gained 119 yards with four rushing touchdowns and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon gained 216 yards on just nine carries, scoring a touchdown himself.
It was also the first time in school history Wisconsin had two running backs surpass the 200-yard mark, and the 70 points scored were a new Big Ten Championship record, easily surpassing the previous record of 42 set by the team in 2011.
“Just to say to have three Big Ten championships, that says it all,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said.
The Badgers set the tone for the game early, as a four-play opening drive culminated in a jet-sweep to Gordon, who took it to the left sideline and cut upfield for a 56-yard touchdown.
Even though Ball was named the game’s MVP for his performance, it was the electric runs of Gordon that sparked Wisconsin early and often, as the little-used tailback took three of his nine runs for more than 40 yards.
Wisconsin primarily used Gordon on motion-sweeps, as the straight-line speed of the redshirt freshman to the sideline was often too much for Nebraska to keep up with.
“I was waiting for the day he was going to excel and show what he was capable of doing,” Ball said with a smile. “It’s really pleasing to me to see him grow and watch him really do some great things out there.”
On the first play of Nebraska’s opening drive, quarterback Taylor Martinez threw a short pass to wide receiver Kenny Bell in the right flat, but Bell mishandled the pass, and the ball found its way into the hands of Wisconsin cornerback Marcus Cromartie. With nobody in front of him, Cromartie took the ball 29 yards for a touchdown as an extra point made the score 14-0 in favor of the Badgers just two minutes into the game.
It was an eerily similar start to the previous meeting between the two teams in September, as Wisconsin jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium only to surrender the game in the second half.
And just like in the first meeting between these two teams, the Cornhuskers rallied, as a highlight-reel 76-yard touchdown scramble by Martinez on 3rd-and-11 brought the score to 14-7.
Nebraska’s defense followed up its offense’s success by forcing a three-and-out, as Martinez and the Huskers drove the ball on the proceeding possession 76 yards down the field.
A Brett Maher field goal later, the lead was cut to 14-10.
But that was the closest the Huskers would get, as Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s creative play-calling kept the Huskers off-balance all game, shifting out of initial formations with three men in motion and running several trick plays.
The Badgers used the “Barge” formation – an offensive setup that entails up to nine down-offensive linemen with White at quarterback – to respond to the Huskers’ rally, with White scoring on a 9-yard run as well as a 1-yard run on the next drive.
“You never know which play is going to matter,” White said. “Every play is a big play. Everybody pushed through each play and helped push us through the game.”
If Nebraska had any hopes for a comeback, it was crushed in Wisconsin’s final drive before halftime. Taking over with just a minute left in the second quarter on their own 21-yard line, the Badgers were once again bolstered by Gordon, who took a sweep 60 yards to set up the game’s lone touchdown throw.
And it wasn’t made by a quarterback.
Once again out of the Barge, White took the snap and took a step forward, only to pull back to pass and find tight end Sam Arneson wide open in the end zone for a deciding touchdown that not only made the score 42-10, but sent the Huskers into the locker room looking dazed by the punch in the mouth they had just endured.
“I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed coaching a team as much as these guys because we’ve gone through some pretty high peaks and low valleys,” Bielema said.
“I got a group of men that only know one thing, and that’s how to work, how to have faith. Their determination to get here and the resiliency of this group gave us the championship.”
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