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Monday, June 27, 2022

Big plays, creativity spur blowout win

INDIANAPOLIS—Moments after Montee Ball hoisted the Grange-Griffin trophy, presented to the Big Ten Football Championship Game’s most valuable player, he tried to hand it off the stage to Melvin Gordon.

According to Ball, he was told the redshirt freshman and junior James White were not allowed to join him on the stage.

For the first time all night, somebody had stopped the trio of running backs from exacting their collective will.

Gordon (9 carries, 216 yards, TD) led the team in rushing yards, White (15, 119, 4 TDs) visited the end zone most frequently, and Ball (21, 202, 3 TDs) became the Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns en route to a 70-31 demolition of No. 12 Nebraska at Lucas Oil Stadium. The win gives Wisconsin (8-5 overall) its third-straight berth in the Rose Bowl.

“Those guys compete on a daily basis,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said of his talented backfield. “Montee’s great. James is great, and Melvin’s getting the hang of things.”

Getting the hang of things, apparently, includes averaging 24 yards per carry on the biggest stage of the Kenosha, Wis., native’s young career.

Gordon set the tone on the fourth play of the game when he took a jet sweep and beat a defender to the edge to find himself in open space. Then, he made pursuing senior safety P.J. Smith fall to the ground with another move and was off to the races, 56 yards down the left sideline. Excellent downfield blocking by redshirt junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis—another theme that would hold through the night—ensured the Badgers took a 7-0 lead.

“Football is all momentum,” Gordon said. “Me doing that definitely gave us the momentum and we just didn’t let it go.”

At times this year, Wisconsin’s offense has stagnated after fast starts. Saturday, a combination of creative play calling and explosive plays ensured that would not be a problem.

In UW’s losses to Ohio State and Penn State the last two weeks, the offense combined for four “explosive plays,” defined in the Wisconsin media guide as plays resulting in 20 or more yards. In the title game alone, the Badgers racked up nine. Seven of those came on running plays, and another was a 22-yard completion to White.

All three running backs had touchdown runs of over 55 yards, with Ball (57) and White (68) turning in slightly longer runs in the third quarter than Gordon did in the first.

Wisconsin rolled up 640 yards of offense on 60 snaps, a whopping 10.7 yards per play. The team’s 539 rushing yards is the most allowed in Nebraska program history. All three backs were able to regularly beat Cornhuskers defenders to the edge early in the game, creating more space between the tackles, where the Badgers struggled in the two teams’ first meeting in September. Even when the ball did not go outside, putting Gordon in motion kept the defense honest.

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“I definitely knew, as soon as I hit a couple of big ones, I told the coaches, ‘James and Montee, it’s so open for them. It’s in the clear … The jet’s there, but feed these guys the ball because the holes are open,’” he said.

With the running game established early, offensive coordinator Matt Canada kept the offense humming by reaching into all corners of the playbook.

All three of Wisconsin’s second-quarter touchdowns came from the “Barge” formation, which features White taking a direct snap. He ran the first in, handed the second to Ball and—for the first time since installing the package early in the season—threw for the third, a three-yard pass to sophomore tight end Sam Arneson just before the half.

The Badgers also used a new look, called ‘Zebra,’ according to redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips. Seven players lined up left of the ball, with Arneson snapping to Phillips. Phillips then rolled right and hit Arneson, an eligible receiver due to the alignment—for 10 yards.

“We had some trouble with it this week,” redshirt junior center Travis Frederick said. “It’s not often the offensive line is not on the ball like that. We had to check with the ref to make sure we weren’t on the ball and everything. It was kind of a good feeling, you feel like a wide receiver a little bit.”

Phillips got his turn feeling like a receiver as well when he caught a 27-yard pass from redshirt junior wideout Jared Abbrederis early in the second quarter on a throwback. In total, the Badgers had three different players complete a pass.  

By halftime, the Badgers led 42-10 and had all but salted away a third-straight Big Ten title. There were several new wrinkles from the UW offense, but the prodigious output still started and ended simply—domination in the running game.

“It’s awesome,” Phillips said. “It doesn’t really matter who’s playing quarterback at that point. It’s just fun to be a part of. A lot of times I get in trouble for not carrying out my fakes because I’m turned around being a cheerleader and just watching them go.”

He has a month to improve before the Badgers face Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

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