BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—On an afternoon that featured feel-good stories and falling records, one fact carries more weight with the Wisconsin football team than any other.
The Badgers (4-2 Big Ten, 7-3 overall) will play in the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.
Redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips started under center for the first time in his career, but largely just handed the ball to a stable of UW running backs. By the time it was all said and done, the Badgers had run the ball 64 times for a school-record 564 yards in a 62-14 thrashing of Indiana (2-4, 4-6).
“It means a lot to us to get the opportunity to go to Indy and play for the championship again,” redshirt junior center Travis Frederick said. “It’s something that you kind of dream of as a kid to get the chance to play at this level and play for a championship at this level.”
The Badgers opened Phillips’ reign as a starter with three consecutive scoring drives as the offense rolled up 176 rushing yards in the first quarter. After the Hoosiers closed the gap to 17-7 late in the second quarter and UW found itself in third and long, junior running back James White staved off a momentum switch with a 69-yard touchdown run in the closing seconds of the half.
“They had some momentum after they scored their touchdown and it looked like we were going to get stopped right there and I just happened to find a hole and it was a good way to go into halftime,” White said.
When UW opened the second half with a 6:11 march that ended with a one-yard touchdown run from senior running back Montee Ball and put the Badgers up 31-7, the route was on.
Wisconsin only threw the ball seven times for the afternoon, which head coach Bret Bielema said was partly because of the game plan and partly because the run game worked so well. Phillips (4-7, 41 yards) also chipped in 68 yards rushing, a facet of his game that neither redshirt freshman Joel Stave nor junior Danny O’Brien possess.
“I think it helps, it’s a little bit of a different dimension,” Phillips said of his ability to run. “If you get in the [shotgun formation] and run, they have to kind of—the backside defensive end and the linebackers, especially—they have to hesitate just a little bit to make sure you hand the ball off.”
Ball led the way for the Badgers rushing attack, finishing with 198 yards and three scores on 27 carries. White chipped in 161 and 2 TDs, and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon nearly topped the century mark himself, racking up 96 yards and a score on just eight touches. In all, the Badgers averaged 8.8 yards per carry and racked up 14 rushes of 17 yards or more en route to seven rushing touchdowns.
That, along with a spirited defensive effort against the Hoosiers’ fast-paced offense, helped the Badgers possess the ball for 39:27 and wear out the IU defense. Wisconsin rushed on 31 of its 33 second-half plays and got five touchdown runs from four different backs.
“We were gelling, especially in the run game,” White said. “We knew it was going to be hard for them to stop us in the run if we all played and worked hard and strained through the whistle.”
Indiana tried to establish its no-huddle offense early, but the Badgers’ defense forced five punts and a fumble on the Hoosiers’ first six possessions. On those six possessions, IU had the ball for just 7:01 and five of the drives lasted less than 1:17. All told, Indiana managed just 294 total yards.
In what was expected to be a cat-and-mouse game between IU’s passing attack and the Wisconsin defense, UW’s offense stole the show, led by a fifth-year senior with two reconstructed knees.
“I try to not be too high or too low emotionally,” Phillips said. “I just try to prepare and, when you have guys like that running the ball, it’s not too hard on the quarterback.”