Sunday, December 2, 2012
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 14
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Three lessons from a lopsided Big Ten championship game:
Receiver Jared Abbrederis and Wisconsin seemed OK with heading to the Rose Bowl as underdogs.
1. Wisconsin making the Rose Bowl fits the Big Ten's 2012 narrative: The first five-loss team ever to play in the Rose Bowl? It figures that team comes from the Big Ten after a season like this. Although Wisconsin proved itself to be the far superior team Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Badgers will continue to get knocked for losing five games, finishing third in the Leaders Division and representing a league that has become the nation's pinata in its signature game. Wisconsin likely will be a sizable underdog against Stanford and written off in its third Rose Bowl appearance in three years. If Stanford takes that mindset, it could be in serious trouble Jan. 1, as Wisconsin easily could have nine or 10 wins and has embraced the disrespected-underdog role. The Badgers match up decently with Stanford, and if they execute on offense anywhere near the level they did Saturday night, they'll be tough to beat. But prepare for a lot of Big Ten bashing from now until kickoff on New Year's Day.
2. Montee Ball is the nation's best running back: Ball might not have matched his historic 2011 season on the stat sheet, but he still put up huge numbers behind an incredibly inconsistent offensive line that came together only for spurts. All the Badgers' backs had big performances against Nebraska, but Ball stole the show in the third quarter on a 57-yard touchdown run, complete with a stiff-arm of Huskers standout nickel back Ciante Evans en route to the end zone. Ball eclipsed 190 rushing yards in three of his final four games, continuing his late-season brilliance, and racked up 100 yards or more in seven of his final eight Big Ten contests. His slow start had more to do with Wisconsin's transitioning offense, and he likely helped his NFL draft stock with the strong closing kick. The Doak Walker Award likely will come down to Ball and Oregon's Kenjon Barner, but we feel Ball deserves it.
3. Nebraska is still too fragile: Bo Pelini's Huskers reached the Big Ten title game because they repeatedly showed resiliency and overcame mistakes early in games. But on the biggest stage, with a chance to win a league title for the first time since 1999, the Huskers fell flat. They took horrible angles on defense and had no answer for any of Wisconsin's ball carriers. A defense that had seemed to rectify its early-season issues looked a step slow all night. Quarterback Taylor Martinez and the offense continued to turn the ball over, and didn't find any rhythm until the game was out of reach. Many of the Huskers' season-long issues -- slow starts, turnovers, penalties -- hamstrung them on a big stage. Although Saturday night's margin of defeat undoubtedly stood out, Nebraska has had other big-game stinkers in recent years. Pelini certainly has improved the program he inherited from Bill Callahan, but the Huskers aren't taking that next step to restore themselves among the nation's elite.