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Badgers Maul Huskers 70-31, Deny Nebraska Big Ten Title
For a team that was constantly reminded of 1999, Saturday’s game in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship resembled the last conference champion for Nebraska some 13 years ago. Unfortunately for the Cornhuskers, it was Wisconsin that looked like the Nebraska of the 20th century and not this year’s edition looking to punch their ticket to the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin ground up 539 yards rushing, scored 21 points in each of the first three quarters, and embarrassed Nebraska on the way to a 70-31 victory to claim the Big Ten championship and a spot in the Rose Bowl for a third straight season while the Huskers remain searching for far more than their first conference title since 1999. 10.8 yards per rush. Three running backs over 100 yards rushing and two of the three running backs had over 200 yards rushing. Pick your poison, as there were many varieties for Nebraska but they all added up to a slow, painful death in their quest to achieve the goal set for the 2012 season. So how did it all go wrong?
From their opening series, Wisconsin jumped on Nebraska and never got off their back. The very first play of the game saw Montee Ball pick up seven yards and if it weren’t for a tackle by corner Andrew Green, Ball could have hit pay dirt from 75 yards out as Wisconsin had shifted their personnel to one side of the field and ran the cutback to the other, providing Nebraska defenders the tough proposition of bringing down Ball and the other Badgers’ running backs in a one-on-one situation. While Green won on that play, others would not two plays later as Melvin Gordon raced 56 yards for a touchdown and the race was on. Following a touchback, Taylor Martinez threw to Kenny Bell, but Bell slipped and managed to tip the ball right into the hands of Marcus Cromartie who went 29 yards untouched and it was 14-0 just 2:07 into the game. But no sweat, this was a Husker team that had overcome far more dire situations, right?
It began to look that way. Facing a third and 1, Nebraska managed not only a false start, but a delay of game and suddenly it was third and 11. It mattered little, as Martinez turned in what may have been a top 3 run all-time at Nebraska, making as many as six different Badgers grasp for air and racing 76 yards for a touchdown that the Huskers so badly needed after their nightmare start. Nebraska then forced Wisconsin into a three and out and the Huskers capitalized with a clinical 10-play drive that covered 76 yards in 4:30 capped off by a 32-yard field goal from Brett Maher to cut the Wisconsin lead to 14-10. It was all over from that point on as the Badgers hammered the Huskers in nearly every phase of the game and made it look stunningly easy.
Wisconsin responded with an 8 play, 75 yard drive of their own and found the end zone when James White ran in from 9 yards out and the rout was on as it was 21-10 Wisconsin at the end of the first quarter. Nebraska couldn’t respond and Wisconsin punished them with more hard running from Ball and some rare throws from quarterback Curt Phillips to set up what may have been the play that was the microcosm of Nebraska’s night—a handoff to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis who threw back to a wide open Phillips who could have called fair catch on the throw—that set up another Badgers score. White’s one-yard run made it 28-10 and the doubt was beginning to seep in if it hadn’t already flooded the Husker psyche. Three and out from Nebraska and another six play, 69 yard drive from Wisconsin capped off by Ball’s 16 yard touchdown put the game out of reach with 7:15 left in the half.
It’s one thing to get caught up in a shootout—after all, Nebraska had a high-powered offense that had given opposing teams fits all season long including this very Wisconsin team back on September 29th—but when that shootout sees only one team firing and connecting on the shots, it gets out of hand quickly. Martinez fumbled and Mike Taylor recovered at the Wisconsin 45. Mercifully, a 45-yard field goal from Kyle French sailed wide right and the Huskers clung to a sliver of hope…which would be devoured by halftime. Gordon raced 60 yards to the Nebraska 3 yard line with Wisconsin calling timeout to set up the dagger. With Nebraska’s defense sucked in, White ran in toward the line after taking the direct snap, pulled back, and lofted a pass over the mass of Huskers to a wide open Sam Arneson for a touchdown and a 42-10 Badgers lead heading to halftime.
The other shoe that had been waiting to drop on Nebraska all season long with their seemingly charmed life finally fell—and it dropped hard on the Huskers in Indianapolis. The first half saw Wisconsin completely outclass the depleted defense, but even if the Huskers had been able to extend the eligibility of standouts from some of the most recent seasons, it may not have mattered much. Everyone seemed confused by what Wisconsin was doing—whether it was the constant confusion before the snap, the one-on-one matchups in wide open spaces for the Badgers to exploit, or the game plan executed to a perfect T by a hungry Badgers team—there was no mistake about who was winning on this night. Perhaps that’s why it hurts so much for a team and a fan base that thought these types of games had become a blip on the radar, never to be experienced again. It resembled the previous debacles against UCLA and Ohio State this season, but it left Bo Pelini and a coaching staff searching for answers they didn’t find Saturday night and will have to find in a hurry to salvage a season that’s already been deemed a failure by the head coach.
I’ll spare you most of what happened in the second half…although the third quarter provided some interesting points of interest. Martinez was picked off by Devin Smith on a third and 7 on the second half’s opening possession and Ball ran into the end zone untouched from nine yards out and it was 49-10 just 47 seconds into the third quarter. Jamal Turner would have found the end zone on the game’s next possession after a terrific run and catch, but Kenny Bell’s perfectly legal and well executed block was ruled to be ‘unnecessary roughness’ and negated Turner’s score. This play would serve as a flashpoint to the second half which nearly resulted in some very ugly results. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema went absolutely ballistic as Devin Smith laid out on the field after Bell’s big block, prodding the officials to toss Bell out for the legal block. Regardless, Nebraska scored on the drive and made it 49-17.
From there, the Badgers kept dominating up front on both sides of the ball and finished with 640 yards of total offense, 70 points, and their place in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl assured. For Nebraska, their place is not so certain anymore—they had been the class of the Legends division winning all of their five divisional games and seven overall in the conference versus just one loss—but they were exposed in a big way by the Badgers. We saw a team Saturday night that couldn’t find the answers in any phase of the game and found itself at the bottom of a massive snowball of mistakes that was thought to have been melted long ago. Instead, it reappeared frostier than ever and buried Nebraska’s 2012 season.
Ok, so maybe it’s not over yet, but when your head coach calls the year a failure for not winning the game you set out to win before the year started, it’s what he says it is. Talking to many of the players and coaches after the 70-31 final score line had been capped off by Imani Cross’ 26-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds to play, you could tell this team was shell shocked and beaten down. The disappointment was very real and for 29 seniors it had to have been excruciating; here was a chances for Nebraska to re-appear as a player on the national stage, but has been the case in previous years with similar chances, the Huskers just simply didn’t show up and left their chance on the table.
The grades are pretty simple here, but for posterity sake we’ll proceed…
After Martinez raced 76 yards to cut the Wisconsin lead to 14-7, the Huskers put together a good drive that mixed both the run and pass well and resulted in a field goal to make it 14-10. Save for maybe one or two other drives in the remaining three quarters, the offense was unbalanced and could not win the battle up front. David Gilbert, Chris Borland, Mike Taylor, and an angry Badgers defense stifled Nebraska for the second quarter as Wisconsin outgained Nebraska 237-38 in a decisive 15 minutes that could potentially define a season.
Usually when Martinez is Nebraska’s leading rusher over 100 yards (he finished with 140 on the night), the Huskers win. Obviously, the reason why it didn’t happen Saturday will be further explained in about three lines or so, but it’s a formula that also failed against UCLA this season. I’m sure it wasn’t the game plan, but Nebraska gave Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah a combined six carries in the first half. It probably didn’t have a lot to do with the outcome, but it signaled that Nebraska had panicked and the game was lost. 282 yards on the ground and another 195 through the air would normally signal a decent effort. But the offense disappeared in the second quarter and three turnovers doomed any chance of a comeback, we’ll give the offense a D+.
Well, there were the school-record 539 rushing yards allowed by the Blackshirts, there was the fact that Wisconsin ran 60 plays for 640 yards of total offense, there were the eight rushing touchdowns by the Badgers, there were the…alas, you get the idea. It was a historically bad night for the defense and one that may have long lasting consequences.
What those are, I do not know. I cannot see any position coaches feeling any heat or anything similar in the near future nor really in the long term future either. The defense was two steps behind all night, was missing tackles all night, and looked like they had no clue how to stop a painful evening from getting any worse. Regardless, this will go down as an unquestioned F.
The Special Teams
The one area where Nebraska didn’t really do much to hurt itself as it had in previous weeks. Sure, it didn’t hurt that Wisconsin only punted three times on the night and saw only two of ten kickoffs get returned out of the end zone, but the Huskers played to a standstill here. Maher’s 32-yard field goal snuck through while the Badgers’ Kyle French missed wide right on a 45-yard attempt in the second quarter. A passable grade and then some, we’ll give the special teams a C+.
Bell’s block on Smith in the third quarter set off a chain of events that nearly sent the game spiraling out of control on the field. You never want to accuse a coach of trying for retaliation, but it certainly looked like Wisconsin was out to atone for that block from Bell. On the very same drive, facing a second and ten, Martinez was chased out of the pocket and threw incomplete to Burkhead. But in the process, Badgers’ defensive end Ethan Hemer clearly dove late at Martinez’s knees and drew a roughing the passer penalty as Nebraska capitalized with a touchdown. Later, Martinez was suplexed in the middle of the field by Borland without penalty and a clear makeup call was levied against the Badgers on the next play.
Pending what happens with potential re-alignment with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten, this could be the rivalry Husker fans are looking for. I still think Michigan can provide a nice rival for Nebraska, but the Wolverines already have their red-letter game against Ohio State in addition to more minor rivalries with Michigan State and Notre Dame. Wisconsin is starving for a rival and Nebraska’s game with Iowa may or may not materialize. Given Bielema’s penchant for putting up huge numbers in games out of hand and what happened Saturday with a 70 spot hung up on Nebraska, there will be ample ammunition for a prolonged distaste of Wisconsin from Husker nation. And given Wisconsin’s whipping of Nebraska in two of their last three encounters, this rivalry could simmer over time and become white hot very quickly.
At the time of this column’s publication, the Huskers will either end up in the Capital One Bowl or the Outback Bowl and be paired up with an upper-tier SEC team in either Texas A&M, LSU, or even South Carolina. A win could get Nebraska to 11-3 on the year and partially restore some badly needed confidence and momentum into the offseason after the disaster in Indianapolis. The question is, will this bowl game resemble the lackluster efforts of 2010 and 2011, or will an inspired effort a la 2008 and 2009 serve as a catalyst for the year to follow. It’s up to a team led by 29 seniors that will certainly hope to leave Nebraska with a better taste in their mouth than what Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin surely provided.
This is a good group of seniors that I think will inspire this team to put together a more complete and focused effort than what we saw against the Badgers. No one will want to go out with two devastating losses to end what was looking to be Pelini’s best year in charge of the Huskers in his five thus far in Lincoln. But can Nebraska avoid a similar fate if they’re matched up with the Aggies, the Tigers, or even the Gamecocks? If the Huskers struggled mightily with Wisconsin’s speed, what on earth could happen against the all-mighty SEC? A&M would be a good matchup, but the spread used by Kevin Sumlin and presumptive Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel would likely be a migraine headache for the Blackshirts to deal with. If it’s not Texas A&M, the more physical, up front running game of LSU and a multi-dimensional attack from South Carolina also provide their challenges.
Overall, Indianapolis proved to be a great city to host the Big Ten championship. Should Nebraska make it back next season, there’s little doubt they’ll fare better than they did Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. It surely could not have gotten much worse…right?