There will be plenty of folks clad in red and white at the second annual Big Ten Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, as the Nebraska Cornhuskers do battle with the Wisconsin Badgers.
Nebraska is appearing in its first Big Ten championship game, but this is the third time in the last four years the Cornhuskers are playing for a conference crown — the other two of course coming when they were members of the Big 12. Nebraska went 10-2 during the regular season, and won the Legends Division crown by virtue of their 7-1 league ledger. It is the Huskers’ best conference record since 2001, and included in that impressive mark is a 30-27 comeback victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener in Lincoln on Sept. 29. As a result, Nebraska owns a narrow 4-3 lead in the all-time series.
A win over the Badgers would give Nebraska two wins over the same opponent in the same season for the first time since 1896 (Nebraska Wesleyan). A win in this game would also make the Cornhuskers the first team in FBS history to win a conference title in two different leagues, and it would mark their first conference crown since 1999. Nebraska hasn’t been to a BCS Bowl Game since playing for the national title in the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin is playing in the Big Ten title tilt for the second straight year (42-39 win over Michigan State), although this time around the Badgers backed in after finishing third in the Leaders Division behind Ohio State and Penn State, both of which are ineligible to participate. Wisconsin finished the regular season at 7-5 overall and 4-4 in conference, and the team has lost two in a row and three of its last four coming into this contest.
Wisconsin is actually seeking its third straight Big Ten title and its third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl, both of which would mark the first time that has occurred in program history. No Big Ten team has played in three straight Rose Bowls since Michigan from 1977-79.
The Cornhuskers turned up the intensity on defense at Iowa last Friday, holding the Hawkeyes scoreless over the final three quarters and to only 200 yards of total offense in what turned out to be a 13-7 Nebraska victory. Alonzo Whaley posted a career-high 11 tackles and had an interception as well, and Eric Martin logged three TFL, including a sack, for the Nebraska defense, which allowed just 3.2 yards per play.
The Huskers rushed for 200 yards in the contest, as all five of the team’s primary ball carriers finished with at least 40 yards. Rex Burkhead led the way in his return from injury with 69 yards and a TD on 19 carries. QB Taylor Martinez had a tough time battling the wind, throwing for just 63 yards on 8- of-14 passing, but he added 41 yards in the running game.
For the season, Nebraska is averaging 35.4 points and 460.9 yards per game. Like its counterpart in this matchup, the Huskers’ strength is in the running game, which accounts for 252.2 ypg and 28 TDs. Abdullah surpassed the 1,000- yard mark (1,071) and has eight rushing TDs, which ties Martinez for the team lead. The athletic signal-caller, who has 833 rushing yards, has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,483 yards with 21 TDs and only eight interceptions. Kenny Bell is Nebraska’s homerun threat in the aerial attack, and he has 44 grabs for 789 yards, his eight receiving TDs being four times as many as his closest teammate.
On defense, the Cornhuskers have stood their ground against most foes, giving up 22.6 points and 318.3 yards per contest. Their effort against the pass has been particularly impressive as opponents average a mere 152.2 ypg through the air and have scored just 12 TDs. Unlike the Badgers, the Blackshirts have proven to be an opportunistic bunch by forcing 21 turnovers to go with 29 sacks. Will Compton is high man on the team with his 98 tackles, Daimion Stafford has 83 and a club-best four interceptions, and Eric Martin leads the way with 16 TFL and 8.5 sacks.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini spoke recently about his team’s mental makeup going into this championship game as opposed to title tilts in the past.
“We’ve come up short the last two times we’ve gone into the game. We’ve played two good football teams and lost two tough games. I don’t get into dissecting and the psychology. We’re either going to make enough plays to win or we’re not.”
In a game in which Montee Ball became the NCAA’s all-time TD leader, the Badgers came up just short in their bid to claim win number eight on the season as they dropped a 24-21 overtime decision at Penn State last Saturday. It was the third OT loss of the season for Wisconsin (Michigan State and Ohio State being the others), actually the third in the last four games. Ball scored his 79th career TD in the first quarter, passing Miami-Ohio’s Travis Prentice for first place on the NCAA’s all-time list. Ball finished the game with 111 yards on 27 carries, while QB Curt Phillips completed half of his 25 pass attempts for 191 yards, two TDs and one interception.
The UW defense was battered by Penn State RB Zach Zwinak (career-best 179 yards, one TD), and allowed 200 yards and a score to QB Matt McGloin. The Badgers did not force a turnover, and only recorded two sacks as part of their five TFL on the day. Ethan Armstrong was one of three UW defenders with double-digit tackles, which also included Mike Taylor who made 10 of his 11 stops without any assistance.
For the season, the Wisconsin offense averaged 27.5 ppg in piling up 380.4 ypg, the bulk of which came via the run which generated 212.7 ypg and accounted for 29 of the unit’s 42 TDs. Ball has amassed 1,528 yards and 18 TDs, while James White has served as a valuable backup in rushing for 693 yards and eight scores. None of the three QBs who have taken snaps this year have really excelled, the collection combining to complete 57.6 percent of their passes for a little over 2,000 yards with 13 TDs and only five interceptions. Jarred Abbrederis is the Badgers’ top receiver after making 44 catches for 764 yards and five TDs.
The Wisconsin defense has performed well for the most part this season, yielding just 18.1 ppg behind typical outputs of 111.3 ypg rushing and 196.6 ypg passing. Despite shutting down the opposition repeatedly throughout the campaign, there is a glaring lack of big plays with the Badgers logging only 12 takeaways. Taylor has had a monster year with 115 tackles, 14 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. Devin Smith has three picks to his credit, and Chris Borland has 4.5 sacks.
UW head coach Bret Bielema spoke recently about the advantage of having played in this game before.
“I know our kids really hadn’t thought about it much, but one of the things I talked them to on Sunday was the advantage we would have by being in this environment already. It’s a really unique experience, more so than any other game I’d ever been involved with, bowl games or anything, just all the different little things that you have to be engaged in, in addition to playing in Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a very different stadium. It’s a very, very unique environment and something that our kids have already been there.”