J.J. Watt was one of the last Badgers to leave the sea of people on the Camp Randall field. He ran up the tunnel, stopped and turned, arms raised. Then he retreated a few more steps up the tunnel before stopping and turning again, savoring the moment.
Who could blame him?
Wisconsin had just pounded Northwestern 70-23 and won a share of the Big Ten title. Every player walked off the field with a rose and a smile – or rather, pushed his way off the field. Fans, young and old, flooded the turf after the clock ran down, celebrating the Badgers’ first conference crown since 1999.
So when Watt finally made it in to postgame interviews, he was still on cloud nine and still in his uniform. Usually the players shower and come out in formal wear to speak with the media, but Saturday marked a mix of attire. Running back James White – who had 134 rushing yards and a touchdown – was wearing a hoodie. Center Peter Konz, who helped pave the way for 329 UW rushing yards, looked like he belonged on “The Bachelor,” wearing a suit and holding two red roses.
The one thing everyone was wearing was a smile.
“I feel like hot stuff right now,” Konz said.
“When you have a chance to win a Big Ten championship, that doesn’t come every year, that doesn’t necessarily come every decade,” Watt said.
Wisconsin shares the conference championship with Ohio State and Michigan State, who all finished 11-1 overall and 7-1 in conference play. It’s the 12th Big Ten title in UW history and the Badgers’ seven conference wins tie a school record.
And that seventh Big Ten win was never in doubt.
Wisconsin scored on its first possession for the eighth time this season and Northwestern never got closer than 14-3. The score was 49-17 at halftime, but any accusations of running up the score are moot.
The Wildcats turned the ball over seven times and the Badgers didn’t even score in the fourth quarter, electing to take a knee at the end of the game while inside the NU 10-yard line.
But even in three quarters of play, the offense continued to roll over, around and through anything a defense could throw at it.
“A lot of times offenses will kind of misfire or get a penalty, or do something that will cause them to not be as successful as you could,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “But our guys are great in the red zone, very, very seldom turn the ball over.”
Running back Montee Ball continued his torrid play, running for 178 yards and four touchdowns, making him just the second Badger – and first since Ron Dayne – to rush for four scores in consecutive weeks. Ball broke free for a 32-yard touchdown on UW’s first possession, using a nice juke to run untouched into the end zone. His last touchdown, early in the third quarter might have been his best though, running up the left sideline and breaking a tackle before cutting to the middle for a 44-yard score.
Quarterback Scott Tolzien threw for 230 yards on 15-of-19 passing and four touchdowns. With 3:14 to play in the second quarter, Tolzien threw a perfect ball to a streaking Lance Kendricks for a touchdown.
Wisconsin scored at least 70 points for the third time this season, after not putting up that many since 1915 prior to this year. After a slow start to the season, the Badgers are putting up numbers comparable to hyped teams like Oregon and Auburn.
“Those teams are phenomenal teams, but man, to have an offense like we have, our defense is playing tremendously well. To put up frickin’ 83 points against Indiana and then 70; and we have a traditional offense,” safety Aaron Henry said. “This is no spread, this is no run-and-gun. This is I-formation, smash-mouth power football.”
Henry added his own score, a 50-yard interception return. He was aided by Watt, who had a monstrous game, forcing two fumbles, finishing with three quarterback hurries, three tackles for loss, a sack and a blocked PAT.
With standout quarterback Dan Persa out, Northwestern relied on backups Evan Watkins and Kain Colter. Watkins got a six-yard run and threw a 20-yard pass to Drake Dunsmore to account for NU’s only offensive touchdowns.
At the end of the first half, Venric Mark returned a kick 94 yards to account for NU’s other touchdown. Wisconsin promptly drove the field in 1:06, ending with an 11-yard strike from Tolzien to Nick Toon.
The win was made even more special by the almost-sellout crowd of 80,011, despite being played after Thanksgiving. And while Wisconsin’s berth to the Rose Bowl won’t be official until they announce the BCS pairings Dec. 5, the Badgers were grateful to be celebrating a Big Ten title.
“Surreal is a good word. It’s been surreal, it’s been even hard for it just to sink in. I know I’ll feel really happy tomorrow,” senior John Moffitt said. “I’m a little drained right now. It takes a while to sink in when you’ve wanted something for so long, and this is a goal for so long, to finally get it, I don’t know if you know exactly how to react to it.”