Published Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 7:39 pm
FOOTBALL
Wreck at Indy: Badgers' ground game runs over, through Huskers

INDIANAPOLIS — Run over.

Wisconsin's fist of a physical offense — prepared, diverse, focused — popped Nebraska's six-week winning bubble with the swift, blunt force of a Badger toppling an ant hill.

A five-loss team with weeks to plot and house money to burn humbled the Huskers 70-31, nabbed its third straight Rose Bowl berth and pressed the reset button on an NU season that had been defined by improbable, clutch comebacks.

Should those fond memories eventually linger, Saturday night will still live in Husker infamy.

And even if he couldn't explain it, coach Bo Pelini at least grasped the magnitude of this beating. Before he took a question from the media, he apologized for the performance and took the fall for it.

“We came unglued,” he said. “I wish I had an answer for it, but I don't. Shock doesn't even begin to explain that. It was like a leaking boat. One thing after another. One problem after another...I've never been a part of a game like that as a coach. At the end of the day, it falls on me. It falls directly on my shoulders.”

The defense gave up 640 total yards — including a school record 539 on the ground — to a third-string quarterback leading a Wisconsin offense ranked 84th nationally. The Badgers led 42-10 at halftime and gained 10.7 yards per play, their running backs acting like hot knives through Blackshirt butter. Three runs longer than 60 yards. Three backs gaining at least 100 yards.

Wisconsin didn't throw a pass in the second half. It scored 28 points.

“What is defensive football?” Pelini asked rhetorically, acidly. “It's play your gaps, handle your responsibility, be where you're supposed to be and make tackles. We did none of the above.”

Said safety P.J. Smith: “In this type of defense, when one player messes up, it's going for six. That's exactly what happened tonight. ... We didn't step up to the plate.”

Nebraska's offense gained 477 yards and eventually scored 31 points, but played from a 14-0 hole just 2:07 into the game. Quarterback Taylor Martinez had moments of brilliance — a 76-yard touchdown scramble-and-weave that could be his finest run — and three costly turnovers. His first interception was returned for a 29-yard touchdown when it bounced out of Kenny Bell's hands and into Wisconsin cornerback Marcus Cromartie's mitts.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he wasn't even sure when he shifted to Plan B. But Martinez attempted 33 passes, was sacked five times and scrambled several more. So Beck called more than 40 passes in 78 plays.

Hauling the kitchen sink into a half-empty Lucas Oil Stadium, the Badgers surely had something to do with this rout. They ran plays out of a dizzying number of sets, had a wide receiver and a running back throw passes, and designed a pass rush that featured five defenders roaming around before the snap, looking to puncture holes in Nebraska's confused offensive line.

But mostly, Wisconsin (8-5 overall) crushed the soul of Pelini's defense, running through the overmatched line, around the linebackers and past Husker defensive backs, who repeatedly took poor pursuit angles. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said UW's plan clearly attacked the flanks of NU's defense — much like UCLA and Ohio State — and it produced even more dramatic results than those two teams did.

“Some of the perimeter stuff was designed to bounce and make us make plays in space,” Papuchis said. “Obviously, that's something we struggled with at times this year. And they certainly exposed us today.”

In front of 41,260 fans — more of them Huskers than Badgers — UW freshman Melvin Gordon started the fun with a 56-yard end around for a touchdown on the game's fourth play. NU safeties Daimion Stafford and Smith whiffed on tackles. It was harbinger of long runs and gaping holes to come.

Gordon would bust off 24-yard and 60-yard runs later in the first half. In the fourth quarter, with a 39-point lead, Gordon had a 46-yard run on the same end around. He finished with 216 yards — on nine carries.

Montee Ball had a 57-yard touchdown in the third quarter, punctuated by a stiff-arm jab to the face mask of nickel back Ciante Evans. He had 202 yards — on 21 carries. James White had a 68-yard touchdown, zooming through a gaping hole seemingly left over from the Kevin Cosgrove campaign.

Though Pelini insisted otherwise, Nebraska (10-3) felt the loss of defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, who hurt his knee last week in a win over Iowa. His replacement, undersized end Cameron Meredith, often found himself blasted four, five, six yards away from the play by Badger linemen double teaming him.

“They controlled us up front, and when they do that, you don't have a chance,” Rick Kaczenski said of his whole line, not just Meredith. “You don't have a chance.”

Unlike the aftermath of the 2010 Big 12 championship — when Pelini restricted most of his players and assistants from talking — several made their way to a small, square interview room in the stadium's guts. Outside, more milled around eating pizza. The Huskers talked quietly, even thoughtfully, but offered vague insights into how a team so canny at overcoming its mistakes foundered so completely in the biggest game of its collective life — of the entire Pelini era — against a Wisconsin squad it had already beaten in September.

“They played hard,” guard Spencer Long said. “They're a physical team, and we didn't match them tonight.”

“Normally, I feel like we're unified and we're down to come back, and I can't say what it was, but today felt different,” defensive tackle Chase Rome said. “We couldn't get it done. We couldn't pull it out.”

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“It was a weird game today for some reason,” Smith said. “We just didn't do nothing right on defense. Nothing.”

Pelini blamed himself. The players blamed themselves. The assistants said no, it was more on them. There was no finger pointing. No Big Ten title rings for those fingers, either.

And that was the goal for a team with 29 seniors, who'd vowed to be great, not just good, who'd taken every twist and turn for a six-game winning streak that had Husker fans smelling roses. They came to Indianapolis confident, tight end Kyler Reed said, as confident as they'd been all year. But not too confident. Just right. And a great week of practice. And Pelini said Nebraska prepared for 99 percent of what Wisconsin used Saturday night.

So no alarms. Just surprises.

“We failed,” Pelini said. “We failed to win a championship. That was the goal coming in. Didn't get it done.”

Said linebacker Will Compton: “As a team, what we sacrificed to get here — that's what hurts the most. That's what hurts the most. This was our championship game. This was it for us. And we blew it.”

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com; twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

* * *

>> Video: See postgame analysis with Jon Nyatawa:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon

sam.mckewon@owh.com    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

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