Indianapolis - When the Wisconsin Badgers rolled into Indianapolis, it seemed as though the whole world was against them. At 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten), the Badgers finished in third place in the Leaders division, behind two ineligible teams in Ohio State and Penn State. They'd lost three of their last four games in overtime, and it seemed like any momentum the Badgers had in the middle of the season had evaporated.
Throw in the fact that the Badgers lost to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 30-27 in Lincoln nine weeks ago, and it wouldn't have surprised anyone if Bret Bielema's team faded quietly away into a meager bowl game, wondering what happened to their dreams of another trip to Pasadena, Calif., for a third-straight appearance in the Rose Bowl game.
But the Badgers rushed for 539 yards and battered and bruised Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and the Cornhusker defense, coasting to a 70-31 win that allowed them to claim their third Big Ten title in as many years.
"Tuesday's practice, I knew we had a chance. Wednesday and Thursday I knew we had a really good chance. And after that first quarter, first half today, I knew we had an excellent chance," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said after the game. "I got a group of men that only know one thing, and that's how to work, how to have faith. Their determination to get here and the resiliency of this group gave us the championship."
Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon each rushed for at least 119 yards, with Gordon and Ball each eclipsing 200 total yards in the game. Quarterback Curt Phillips had a quiet day as he completed 6-of-8 passes for 71 yards, but there wasn't much incentive for him to throw when Ball, White and Gordon were gashing Nebraska's defense.
The Badgers set the tone early- Gordon rushed for a 56-yard touchdown early in Wisconsin's first series of the game. But mere seconds later, Marcus Cromartie picked off Martinez on Nebraska's first play from scrimmage, and returned it 29 yards to put the Badgers up 14-0 less than three minutes into the first quarter.
However, the Cornhuskers picked themselves up and punched back right away. Martinez scored Nebraska's first touchdown of the game on a miraculous 76-yard scamper where the Badgers nearly sacked him several times, and the Cornhuskers cut Wisconsin's early lead to four points on a 32-yard field goal from Brett Maher.
But the Badgers responded with four unanswered touchdowns before halftime, and dug deep into their playbook to extend both their lead and their drives. White accounted for three touchdowns in Wisconsin's 'Barge' formation, including a 3-yard pass to Sam Arneson to put the Badgers up 42-10 right before halftime. Bielema gave credit to offensive coordinator Matt Canada for coming up with a game plan that worked so well against the Cornhuskers.
"He obviously came up with a game plan," Bielema said. "The reason I hired him, I've been impressed with his creativity ever since I've known him."
The Cornhuskers got the ball to start the second half, but they stalled out of the gate when Martinez threw his second interception of the game, this time to Devin Smith. Smith returned the ball 22 yards to set up Ball's second touchdown of the game.
The Badgers put the game away with two more scores in the third quarter, ensuring they would play the Stanford Cardinal in the 2013 Rose Bowl Game. The Cardinal beat UCLA 27-24 Friday night in the Pac-12 title game, setting up a rematch of the 2000 Rose Bowl Game.
The Badgers went through a lot of hardship to even get to Indianapolis, and were far from unscathed at the end of Big Ten play. But Bielema said his team never changed on him, and that even though the nation might have been taken aback at their 39-point blowout, he knew his team was still capable of winning the big game, even if they fell short in their last few attempts.
"I've had teams that have been ranked higher, won more games. I don't know if I've enjoyed coaching a team as much as these guys because we've gone through some pretty high peaks and low valleys," Bielema said. "They're the same guys every day. I love coaching guys that are the same people every day."
"It's the ones that are up and down that you get frustrated with. I knew the kind of room I had. That's why today isn't a big shock to me."
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.