INDIANAPOLIS — As it turns out, Bret Bielema knew exactly what he was talking about.
Leading up to the Big Ten football championship game, the Wisconsin coach told anyone who would listen that his team was far better than its five losses indicated.
That his star tailback Montee Ball, twice concussed this season, had regained his speed and explosion.
That his quarterback Curt Phillips, with only three career starts, would operate with poise, make plays and protect the ball.
That his defense was rejuvenated after resting some injured starters and getting those previously dinged-up back in the lineup.
All of that was true, and then some Saturday night.
Wisconsin embarrassed Nebraska so badly — 70-31 — that Maryland and Rutgers immediately volunteered to play the Huskers every year when they join the Big Ten.
At least for NU's sake, not a ton of people saw this turkey shoot. Entire empty sections were available at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the crowd of 41,260 was 25,000 short of capacity.
Those who hung around saw the Badgers, who had scored 35 points in their two previous games combined (both in overtime), hit 35 by the middle of the second quarter. Then while attempting to kill the clock in the final 59 seconds before halftime, they broke four plays for 79 yards and a touchdown to go up 42-10.
And then it really got ugly. When Wisconsin scored to take a 63-17 lead in the third quarter, NU coach Bo Pelini turned his back to the field and flipped his play sheet into the air.
This perfectly goofy ending to the Big Ten's most imperfect season is a shrill warning to any Nebraska fan who thought the glory days were on the near horizon.
The unvarnished truth is that much of the six-game winning streak NU toted to Indy was coated in fool's gold.
It all came against teams from the Big Ten. And the Big Ten, from Commissioner Jim Delany on down, knows that downtrodden group is no better than fifth among the six power conferences.
The league became the butt of jokes for having weeks with no teams in the coaches Top 25 poll or the Bowl Championship Series standings. (Ohio State, which finished 12-0, wasn't eligible for either because of NCAA sanctions.)
Now, a long month of second-guessing is ahead in Lincoln, while Wisconsin goes to a third straight Rose Bowl. That's a first for a Big Ten school since Michigan in the late 1970s.
Before Saturday, the Badgers (8-5) had one win over a team with a winning record. None of those came in the Big Ten. But they focused more on the losses: by 3, 3, 3 in overtime, 7 in overtime and 7 in overtime.
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“We were so close in so many games,” said Phillips, the fifth-year quarterback playing after three major knee ligament injuries.
“We were a 7-5 team, but we were in every one of those games. We knew there were little things we hadn't capitalized on, and that if we got those corrected we would be a really tough team to beat.”
One thing in Wisconsin's favor was having the Leaders Division sewn up by beating Indiana on Nov. 10.
That allowed UW to tighten the playbook for a couple of weeks, then crack it wide open for Nebraska.
By halftime, Wisconsin already had snookered the Huskers with a blitzing defensive alignment involving no tackles; a direct-snap jumbo offense with a tailback, three tight ends and seven linemen; a variation of the swinging gate trick play; and a throwback pass from a running back to the quarterback.
Bully for the Badgers getting creative. But don't even dream of offering that as an excuse for Nebraska's stumbles. Basic blocking and tackling would have taken care of 90 percent of that, as Husker players graciously admitted.
Bielema said his team fed off the underdog role.
“We love when people say 'You can't,'” he said. “We heard it from a lot of people, a lot of talking heads. We like to walk softly and carry a big stick. And when you have a chance to take a swing, swing hard.”
In September, Wisconsin twice held leads of 17 points on Nebraska, but lost 30-27. Payback was pure pleasure, according to the smile on UW wideout Jared Abbredaris' face.
“We wanted this one bad,” he said. “Three Rose Bowls in a row is great. It was a different way to get there, but we're still Big Ten champs. We knew we had this in us.”
So did Bielema.
“I had a group of men who were up for the challenge last Sunday,” he said. “By Tuesday's practice, I knew we had a chance. By Wednesday and Thursday, I knew we had a really good chance. And after that first quarter and first half today, I knew we had an excellent chance. I knew what kind of locker room I had. So this isn't a shock to me.”
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