By Adam Hoge-
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) For three weeks, Bret Bielema insisted his team was not looking ahead to the Big Ten Championship Game.
For three hours Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, no one believed him.
After two straight overtime losses in which the Badgers’ offensive playbook barely extended to page two, Matt Canada — the oft-criticized Wisconsin offensive coordinator — threw everything at Nebraska, leaving the Cornhuskers confused and shocked as the Badgers won 70-31.
“Shock doesn’t even begin to explain that,” Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, who also apologized “to everybody associated with Nebraska football”, said.
A formation with no offensive line? You got it. A formation with 10 guys on the offensive line? No problem. Wide receiver throws? Running back throws? Sure.
Hell, who didn’t play quarterback for Wisconsin Saturday night?
“Yeah, I kind of think at times (Canada) was saving a lot for this game because we’re indoors and there’s no wind factor so we’re capable of doing a lot of things,” Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said. “He did a great job of holding some tricks in his bag for this game and obviously calling the meat and potato plays that we always run.”
No, that wasn’t the Oregon Ducks playing in the Big Ten Championship. That was the now 8-5 Wisconsin Badgers.
And despite the five losses, they’re headed back to Pasadena for the third straight year — the first team to do so since Michigan visited the Rose Bowl three years in a row from 1977-79.
The Badgers will hear plenty of noise from critics who will say they’re no good and they don’t deserve to play Stanford in the Rose Bowl — but right now is probably not the best time to make that argument. Five losses is five losses, but in retrospect, Wisconsin’s overtime defeats to Ohio State and Penn State don’t look so bad considering how much they saved for the Big Ten Championship Game.
“I really couldn’t care less about the talk,” Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips said. “We didn’t make the rules at the beginning of the season, we just took care of our business and made the most of the opportunity in front of us. We were so close to being a very different team.”
And now they are a different team. They are unlikely Big Ten Champions, in a sense erasing their four conference losses. If nothing else, in a bizarre year for the Big Ten, it’s fitting that arguably the oddest champion in conference history is headed to the Rose Bowl.
And, at this point, it would be unfair to rule Wisconsin out against Stanford. The Badgers came into Saturday’s game with five losses by a total of 19 points. And clearly, they’ve been holding back.
Montee Ball’s 202 rushing yards and three touchdowns didn’t surprise anyone, but what about freshman running back Melvin Gordon’s 216 rushing yards on just nine carries? What about wide receiver Jared Abbrederis completing a 27-yard pass to quarterback Curt Phillips? What about running back James White throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Sam Arneson? Heck, Arneson snapped the ball to Phillips at one point in something the Badgers call “the Zebra formation”. And White ran for four touchdowns too.
Of course, now everything is on film. Bo Pelini and Nebraska didn’t have the benefit of knowing what the Badgers had up their sleeves and they were completely blindsided by gimmicks and trickery that Wisconsin hasn’t shown since… well, ever. In fact, Pelini is sure to receive plenty of heat from the Cornhusker faithful after getting completely out-coached against a team they were supposed to beat.
But honestly, who could have seen that coming? Wisconsin is the epitome of the “three yards and a cloud of dust” cliche, but nearly a year after losing offensive guru Paul Chryst to Pitt, clearly a new era of offensive Wisconsin football has arrived.
As the confetti rained down on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf after the game, Canada found his family, hugged them, then turned toward the Wisconsin section in the stands and raised both arms in satisfaction. After Badger fans questioned him all year, he was arguably the biggest reason why they won their third straight Big Ten title.
“The reason why I hired him, I’ve been impressed with his creativity ever since I’ve known him,” Bielema said. “I give a lot of credit to Matt Canada and my offensive coaches overall.”
So what tricks does Canada have up his sleeves now?
“There’s probably a couple we haven’t used yet,” Bielema said. “So we’ll keep those a secret.”
Stay on your toes, Stanford. Especially since there’s a chance Wisconsin could have quarterback Joel Stave back in the mix in time for the Rose Bowl. A team beaming with confidence now has a month to plan its next offensive orchestra and it could get its best passer back.
Of course, Bielema was confident coming into this game too.
“This is the best 7-5 team I’ve ever coached,” he said Friday before the game.
The Badgers proved that Saturday night. Now, they’re the best 8-5 team he’s ever coached.
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.