By Adam Hoge-
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) After two straight 11-win seasons, things haven’t come as easy for Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema this year.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed and hurt as much in one year,” Bielema said Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium as his team prepares to face Nebraska in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.
This season, the Badgers are 7-5, with their five losses coming by a total of 19 points, including three in overtime.
“We’re a really good football team,” Bielema said. “I know this, this is the best 7-5 team I’ve ever been a part of.”
And due to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible for the postseason, the Badgers find themselves right back in Indianapolis with a chance to win their second straight Big Ten Championship Game and third straight conference title.
Saturday, in 60 minutes of football, Wisconsin can erase a lot of the hurt that Bielema has felt this season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘eraser’, but I can understand where they’re coming from,” the head coach said when asked about people viewing the game that way.
But in order to get back to the Rose Bowl for the third straight season, Wisconsin will have to beat a Nebraska team it lost to Sept. 29 when the Badgers blew a 17-point second half lead.
Coughing up leads and finishing games has been a problem for the Wisconsin, which has lost three games in which it had a fourth quarter lead.
It’s a problem that Nebraska has not had — finishing is a big reason why the Cornhuskers arrived in Indianapolis on a six-game winning streak.
“It’s something you either do or you don’t,” Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said Friday about finishing games. “I believe our experience in close games can help us Saturday night.”
Last year’s Big Ten Championship Game was a thriller between Wisconsin and Michigan State that came right down to the end and despite the Badgers’ 7-5 record this year, no one on the Cornhuskers is forgetting that Wisconsin nearly stole a win in Lincoln, Neb. this season. Saturday’s game could easily come down to the final minutes as well.
Here’s a look at how each team can win Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium:
The Huskers will get a big boost as running back Rex Burkhead is back and 100 percent, according to Pelini. Burkhead has missed most of the season with a knee injury, but gives Nebraska a dangerous 1-2 punch with the shiftier Ameer Abdullah, who is enjoying a great season.
That said, Nebraska will be without both center Justin Jackson and defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, two senior linemen the Huskers will miss dearly. The Badgers are well known for playing in the trenches and losing those two players is big. Pelini said both Mark Pelini — Bo’s nephew — and Cole Pensick will see time at center Saturday.
Look for Nebraska to attempt to stop Wisconsin’s running game by running their safeties down hard into the box. It’s something they tend to do no matter who they are playing, but against the Badgers, stopping the run early is key. In their earlier matchup against Wisconsin, UW quarterback Joel Stave was able to go over the top on the Huskers when they gambled, but Stave is out with a broken clavicle. Curt Phillips will get his fourth straight start at quarterback for Wisconsin, but he doesn’t possess Stave’s arm strength and the Badgers have been reluctant to let him throw the ball. If Wisconsin stays one-dimensional, Nebraska’s defense will have a huge advantage.
Offensively, the Huskers will look to spread Wisconsin’s linebackers out. The Badgers will get playmaking middle linebacker Chris Borland back Saturday and he’s dangerous next to senior linebacker Mike Taylor. But UW’s linebacking group is much better when it can clog the middle and fill the gaps. A big reason why Nebraska was able to come back on the Badgers in Lincoln earlier this year is because it spread the linebackers out in the fourth quarter, leaving holes in the middle of the field.
The Cornhuskers are the better team, but Wisconsin showed the blueprint for beating them last year in Madison and for one half earlier this season. Quarterback Taylor Martinez can’t make mistakes and he has to be effective throwing the ball. If he can do that, holes will open and points will be scored. It will be hard to Wisconsin to catch up if Nebraska has early offensive success.
The defense has carried Wisconsin this year and it’s even better than the one that made Martinez look foolish in Madison a year ago. Credit Martinez for improving his passing ability, though, as it was the biggest reason why the Huskers broke through against the Badger defense in the second half Sept. 29.
Nothing changes for Wisconsin though. They have to contain the running game on early downs and put Martinez is passing situations. This blueprint will lead to mistakes, creating opportunities for the Badger offense.
It’s pretty obvious Stave didn’t get enough credit when he was the starting quarterback. The Badgers didn’t lose a game all season that he finished. He played great against Nebraska, but the Wisconsin coaching staff curiously went with backup Danny O’Brien late in the game and he ran the wrong play on 4th-and-short (no, really, he did) and the Badgers lost. Without Stave, Wisconsin’s passing game has been almost non-existent.
Curt Phillips is a great story. He’s a fifth-year senior who has battled back from three ACL tears in the same knee (right knee). He hasn’t looked bad, but Wisconsin has been reluctant to open up the playbook for him. This could be by design as the Badgers have known since Nov. 10 that they were playing in this game and they probably didn’t want to put much on film.
Wisconsin can’t win Saturday without a passing game, however. It will help that stud wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will play after suffering a concussion this week and they’ll have to get him involved.
Let’s not forget that Montee Ball is still on this team. He’s been quiet this year, but only because his offensive line has been a disappointment and the offense has been one-dimensional. Despite all that, he still has 1528 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
Bret Bielema has been weird this week. He’s way too confident. Something is fishy.
As much as he has insisted Wisconsin did everything it could to beat Ohio State and Penn State the last two weeks — they lost both games in overtime — I have a feeling we’ll see the offensive playbook opened up a lot more.
Pelini admitted he’s expecting some new wrinkles, but the good news is that he still has the more talented team. Bielema called Nebraska “the fastest team A-to-Z, we’ve faced” and he’s right. Wisconsin has a good defense, but they’ll get in trouble if the Huskers successfully spread them out with its speed.
I expect this to be a close game and I envision it coming down to the end. There’s a lot of evidence that Wisconsin is better than 7-5. Last week against Penn State, the Badgers scored touchdowns on its first two possessions and then closed the playbook almost completely. Phillips has led two late drives in the last two weeks to force overtime, which is a sign he’s better than what’s been put on film.
Of course, then overtime happened. Wisconsin looked overmatched in overtime in all three of its OT defeats this year and its not a good sign when your team folds in crunch time like that.
That’s something Nebraska has not done this season and in a game where both teams are going to put everything on the table to get to Pasadena, talent — not trickery — will win out.
And let’s not ignore one other major factor in a close game: Wisconsin’s kicking game has been awful, while the Huskers have the usually reliable Brett Maher.
Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 24.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.