INDIANAPOLIS—It isn’t hard to imagine Wisconsin (4-4 Big Ten, 8-5 overall) offensive coordinator Matt Canada licking his chops leading up to the rematch with Nebraska (7-1, 10-3) in the Big Ten Championship game.
Playing indoors, giving redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon more than a few touches, and having a hungry pair of running backs in senior Montee Ball and junior James White allowed the often-criticized Canada to open up the playbook and ultimately drub the Cornhuskers by a score of 70-31 to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year.
“[That’s] the reason I hired him,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said of Canada. “I’ve been impressed with his creativity ever since I’ve known him.”
The trickery yielded a 539-yard rushing performance (Gordon had 216, Ball 202 and White 109), a touchdown pass from White to sophomore tight end Sam Arneson out of the ‘Barge’ formation, and more jet sweeps than one could imagine.
Nebraska’s defense was about as baffled as it was against Ohio State Oct. 6, when it gave up 63 points.
“It was a weird day today for some reason,” senior Cornhuskers safety P.J. Smith said. “We didn’t do anything right on defense.”
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini was equally ashamed.
“I apologize to everybody associated with Nebraska football with how we coached, how we played, and it’s not acceptable,” he said.
The Badgers almost literally couldn’t have started any faster, as Gordon scored on the game’s fourth play on a 56-yard jet sweep. Redshirt senior cornerback Marcus Cromartie returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown from Nebraska senior quarterback Taylor Martinez’s first pass attempt that slipped through the hands of sophomore wideout Kenny Bell.
But Martinez answered three plays and two Husker penalties later by running 76 yards for a score on a third-and-11 from Nebraska’s own 24. The Huskers marched down the field on their next possession and converted on a 32-yard field goal by senior kicker Brett Maher to pull within 14-10.
Wisconsin jumped out to a 14-7 first-quarter lead against Penn State last week but failed to score again until the fourth quarter.
But this time Wisconsin, using a combination of jet sweeps from Gordon and pounding it up the middle with Ball and White, found the endzone four more times before the half.
“[It was] kind of a chess game back and forth,” redshirt junior center Travis Frederick said of the inside-outside run calls. “I think coach Canada did a good job of alternating that and making it work.”
But Wisconsin wasn’t about to let off the gas at halftime, even leading 42-10. The Badgers had learned their lesson a few too many times in the regular season.
“We just tried to make sure to keep our foot on their throats,” redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips (6-of-8 for 71 yards) said. “Obviously they came back on us last time, so we just really tried to emphasize 0-0 at halftime.”
The thing that left everybody confused, though, was the lack of trickery and touches to Gordon earlier in the season.
“We’ve practiced a lot of that stuff all season long,” Phillips said. “We just hadn’t necessarily had the opportunity to use them.”
Wisconsin was just 25 yards rushing off its domination of Indiana in Bloomington, Ind., Nov. 10. Similar to that game, the trio of running backs thought the offensive line’s performance deserves a large amount of praise.
“It was pretty open,” Gordon said. “Those guys blocked it up well for me, I can’t lie. I just ran.”
The Badgers averaged more yards per rush (10.8) than they did through the air per attempt (10.1) and proved that the gap between the best team in the Big Ten (a 12-0 Ohio State) and the Badgers, who stumbled to a 4-4 conference record, is minimal.
“After some of those [losses] Saturday night when you’re sitting on the plane ride home—some were on the road—and then I come in on Sunday and just see the guys that we have the great fortune of coaching and see the look in their eyes, the passion,” Bielema said. “They hurt when you’re supposed to hurt.”
Lost in the offensive frenzy was a defense that held the Huskers back just enough for the Badgers to pull away. Martinez looked far less comfortable after giving up the 76-yard scamper in the first quarter. He did finish with 140 yards on the ground, however.
“Really proud of the defensive effort from the D-line, to the linebackers, to the secondary,” redshirt junior linebacker Chris Borland said. “It’s one of the best we’ve put forth all year in the first half, especially.”
The doubt of the Badgers around the Big Ten and the adversity that was swept away Saturday night makes the Rose Bowl berth even better for this season’s Badgers.
“When you have a chance to take a swing, take it hard,” Bielema said. “I knew our kids were going to come out and prove some things very, very well today.
“To have three Big Ten Championships says it all. It makes this one very special.”