INDIANAPOLIS - It's so hard to keep up with Big Ten expansion these days. When, for instance, did Savannah State join the league?
Wait -- those were the Nebraska Cornhuskers?
The numbers were comical, the decisiveness bizarre. In a game as embarrassingly lopsided as a September walkover against a FCS pipsqueak, the Wisconsin Badgers earned a third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl, overpowering Nebraska with 10 touchdowns in a 70-31 punchline.
The Badgers (8-5) will be the first five-loss team to make a New Year's appearance in Pasadena in the Rose Bowl's century-long history, but they have nothing to apologize for. Their trip to the Big Ten championship game might have been a fluke of sanctions and divisional alignment, but their trip to Pasadena is no fluke at all.
Check out these cartoonish numbers: Wisconsin had four rushes of 50 yards or longer, but only two incomplete passes. The Badgers picked up 10 or more yards on 21 plays and punted only three times. The three-time defending champs gained 539 yards on the ground -- or nearly 10 times as many as the 56 yards they picked up in their 30-27 loss in Lincoln in September.
Two Wisconsin tailbacks, senior Montee Ball and freshman Melvin Gordon, gained more than 200 yards, and junior James White had 109. But don't feel bad for White -- he scored four touchdowns on the ground, and threw the game's only touchdown pass for good measure.
All that against a Nebraska defense known for its speed and renowned for its execution. No wonder the Huskers, after watching Nebraska flaunt its own quickness, were the ones saying "I'm sorry."
"We failed. We failed to win a championship. That was the goal, and we didn't get it done," said Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who has also lost two Big 12 championship games in his seven seasons with the Huskers. "I apologize for it. I apologize to the football team, I apologize to the fans. At the end, it falls on me. I'm the one responsible for it, and we didn't get it done."
Nebraska (10-3), which saw a six-game winning streak end, will still play in a New Year's Day bowl game, though a BCS game appears unlikely. But Wisconsin, the first Big Ten team since Michigan from 1977 to '79 to make three straight trips to Pasadena, knows it will meet Pacific-12 champion Stanford in the Rose Bowl, where the Badgers lost to Texas Christian two years ago and to Oregon last year.
"As my athletic director tells me all the time, it's OK to get there," Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema joked, "but you've got to win one."
That would have been impossible if Ohio State or Penn State had been eligible for the postseason, but Wisconsin, which went 4-4 in the Leaders Division, took advantage of its weakened division to earn a second trip in a row to Indianapolis.
And once they were in the familiar Lucas Oil Stadium surroundings, they took advantage of the Cornhuskers.
"Right from the start, they were all over us," Pelini said, and he's right: In what seems like the time it took to say those words, the Badgers scored a couple of touchdowns.
Actually, it was 127 seconds. In that short time, Gordon, the Badgers' third-string tailback, took a handoff on the game's fourth play, romped to the left edge, juked around safety P.J. Smith and found himself alone in the middle of the field. He sprinted into the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown, the first big play of his 152-yard first half -- on four carries.
Then it was the defense's turn. When Taylor Martinez's first-down pass bounced off receiver Kenny Bell's hands, cornerback Marcus Cromartie grabbed the rebound and slid down the sideline 29 yards for a touchdown.
"Those first couple of minutes really gave us a lift," Bielema said, and he must have meant it in the same way the rocket boosters give the space shuttle a lift.
Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips didn't have much experience, having started only three games in his career, but as a senior, he had a thorough understanding of the playbook, and the Badgers flaunted that advantage by running one odd formation or unusual motion after another. It resulted in 17 gains of 10 or more yards in the first three quarters alone, and touchdown runs of 56, 57 and 68 yards -- by three different running backs.
Phil Miller • firstname.lastname@example.org