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Wisconsin headed to Rose Bowl after whipping Nebraska, 70-31

By Jeff Potrykus, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

INDIANAPOLIS — Wisconsin’s players and coaches felt the frustration build week after week, loss after loss, over a 12-game regular season.

There were five losses by a total of 19 points.

There were three overtime losses in Big Ten Conference play, by a combined 13 points.

There was the issue of unranked UW advancing to the Big Ten title game Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium despite finishing third in the Leaders Division.

UW was no unworthy representative as No. 14 Nebraska learned in the teams’ rematch in front of a crowd of 41,260 fans.

The Badgers used big plays on offense and defense to score twice in the first 2 minutes of the game and completely out-schemed Nebraska’s proud defense throughout en route to a stunning 70-31 victory for their third consecutive Big Ten title, a first in the history of the program.

Can the Rose Bowl handle UW for a third consecutive season?

UW’s players and coaches, losers in the last two Rose Bowls, have been planning their return trip for months and will join Michigan (1976-‘78 seasons) as the only Big Ten teams to play in three consecutive Rose Bowls.

“We’ve been through a lot this year,” said UW junior linebacker Chris Borland, who had a game-high 13 tackles to lead a relentless defensive effort that produced three turnovers. “We had five really tough losses we felt we could have won. This kind of validated everything we put into the season.

“We overcame some obstacles and to go through that adversity and to come out on top in the end means a lot to us.”

UW (8-5) is set to become the first team to play in the Rose Bowl with five losses. The Badgers play Jan. 1 against No. 8 Stanford (11-2), which secured its spot in the game with a 27-24 victory over UCLA on Friday night in the Pacific 12 title game.

The game will be a rematch of the 2000 Rose Bowl — a 17-9 UW victory — but with a twist. UW entered that game 9-2 and ranked No. 4 in the nation and a heavy favorite over the 22nd-ranked Cardinal.

UW could be a double-digit underdog this time.

Stanford has won seven consecutive games and has victories over Southern California, 21-14, and Oregon, 17-14, in overtime. The Trojans and Ducks were ranked No. 2 at the time.

The Cardinal lost at Washington, 17-13, and in overtime at Notre Dame, 21-14, which is unbeaten and set to play for the BCS title.

“To have three Big Ten championships,” UW coach Bret Bielema said, “that says it all.”

Now can UW win the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1999 season?

“As my athletic director tells me all the time, it is OK to get there but you need to win it,” Bielema said, referring to Barry Alvarez, 3-0 in the Rose Bowl with UW. “We haven’t won it yet. We’re going out there with that mission.”

On Saturday, UW’s best overall effort of the season crushed Nebraska (10-3), which had rallied for a 30-27 victory in the teams’ Big Ten opener in September.

Tailbacks Montee Ball (21 carries, 202 yards, three touchdowns), Melvin Gordon (9-216-1) and James White (15-109-4) surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark.

In the loss in September, Ball was limited to 90 rushing yards on 32 attempts and UW finished with 56 yards on 41 attempts. On Saturday, he was named the game MVP.

White had one carry for minus-5 yards in the loss and Gordon had two carries for 5 yards.

“I think he’d be the first to tell you, he might be the player who has grown the most in our program from Game 1 to where we are today,” Bielema said of Gordon. “These guys compete on a daily basis. Montee is great. James is great and Melvin is getting the hang of it.”

When White scampered 68 yards for a touchdown to help UW take a 63-17 lead with 6 minutes 42 seconds left in the third quarter, UW had 454 rushing yards on 35 carries.

UW offensive coordinator Matt Canada, vilified by UW fans for much of the season, used the “Barge” formation liberally and continually out-schemed Nebraska’s defense with formations and motions that allowed the Badgers to attack the perimeter.

“I think their offense has gotten better as the year has gone along,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said before the game.

Pelini might want to play the lottery the next time he gets a chance, though not in Wisconsin. He would have no chance of winning.

With UW rolling up 539 rushing yards (10.8 yards per carry) and 640 total yards, the Badgers’ defense contained Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez except for one big play.

After Gordon scored on a 56-yard run and cornerback Marcus Cromartie returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown to give UW a 14-0 lead 2:07 into the game, Martinez broke free for a 76-yard touchdown run.

The Cornhuskers closed to within 14-10 on Brett Maher’s 32-yard field goal with 4:46 left in the first quarter, but UW then scored 35 consecutive points to take a 49-10 lead just 47 seconds into the third quarter to end any doubt.

Cornerback Devin Smith added an interception in the opening minute of the third quarter to set up a UW touchdown and defensive end David Gilbert forced Martinez to fumble in the first half.

“Our defensive coaches have been unbelievable all year,” Bielema said. “We don’t make a lot of calls. We just stick to a plan.”

The victory over Nebraska was the next-to-last step in a journey that began with the first team meeting in January, after winter break and after the loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

“I said at that time if anybody’s goal is anything less than to get back to Indianapolis, you’re in the wrong room,” Bielema said before the title game.

“To come full circle and get back here is very fulfilling. But we didn’t come back here to play in it. We came back here to win it.”

UW accomplished that goal with its third consecutive Big Ten title Saturday. Next up, a third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.

“We had our backs against the wall and we knew it as a team,” Ball said. “We made sure just to focus on our plan and to block everyone out and just keep fighting.”

UW did just that and in the process wiped out all the frustration that mounted over the previous 12 games.

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