- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Wisconsin flew back in a charter plane to Madison shortly after beating Purdue 38-14 on Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium. But no one would have blamed the Badgers if they instead had decided to head an hour south to Indianapolis and camp out there for a couple of months. Maybe scrimmage the Colts to stay sharp.
Following Saturday's turn of events, there's really no way to envision anyone but Wisconsin representing the Leaders Division in the Dec. 1 Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Ohio State and Penn State can't play for the championship because of probation. Illinois, Indiana and Purdue are eligible but wildly inadequate.
That leaves the Badgers, who can afford to take a victory lap these next seven weeks. Yet, if Saturday's performance was a sign of things to come, they might actually earn their berth right.
"If we can continue to play the way we're playing, I think we can really compete with the top people in the conference," center Travis Frederick said.
For most of the first six weeks this season, this was a shell of the team that went to back-to-back Rose Bowls. The offensive line play fell off so dramatically that Bret Bielema fired position coach Mike Markuson after only two games, replacing him with then-graduate assistant Bart Miller. The offense took baby steps forward the past few weeks. Saturday brought a giant leap.
Wisconsin rolled up 645 total yards, the second-highest total in school history. The offensive line paved the way for 484 rushing yards; the team's previous high this season was 213. Senior running back Montee Ball finally resembled the guy who tied the Football Bowl Subdivision touchdown record and was a Heisman finalist last season. Ball got loose for 247 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries. He hadn't had more than 139 yards in a game this season.
"Personally, I needed this," said Ball, who has suffered two concussions since late July. "I wasn't doing too well, and a lot of stuff wasn't going too well for me. But I stuck with it and overcame the adversity."
The difference, Ball said, was yards after contact. He focused this week on doing a better job after the initial hit, and he showed that early Saturday. Ball spun out of a would-be tackle by linebacker Sean Robinson in his own end zone and turned it into an 8-yard gain in a key first-half play. He spun through and around tackles all day, including a 67-yard touchdown run on which he broke outside, came to a complete stop and then burst back up the middle to daylight.
"It's no secret that last year I was untouched a lot of times," he said. "Coming into this game, I told myself that not everyone is going to be blocked, so I need better YAC. Don't get me wrong. There are still a lot of runs where I'm not getting touched. It's just my approach now is, don't expect it."
He might be able to expect that more going forward, actually. Wisconsin averaged 8.2 yards per rush against one of the supposedly better defensive lines in the Big Ten and did so despite losing left tackle Ricky Wagner to a leg injury in the first half. Guard Ryan Groy -- who took his first handful of snaps at tackle one day in practice late this week after reserve tackle Robert Burge was hurt -- shifted over to the blind side and helped keep the ground game rolling.
Frederick said new position coach Miller challenged the linemen at halftime to finish with 400 rushing yards after they piled up 190 in the first two quarters. Those kinds of goals were unthinkable even a few weeks ago, given how little push the line had been getting.
"In my mind, I wondered if we'd be able to get back to that, but I had faith in what we were doing and the guys we have," Frederick said. "It's just a matter of experience. Everybody is getting used to things, and our running backs are getting used to us. The holes aren't the same as they were last year -- they're in different places and in different angles."
When Wisconsin can run the ball like that, everything else falls into place. First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada called a diverse game full of play-actions and misdirections along with the runs. Jacob Pedersen, who had struggled early in the No. 1 tight end role, broke out with four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.
"We're getting there," Pedersen said. "I still think we need bigger pass-catching threats to step up, and I'm still not where I want to be. But guys were doubting themselves early, and now that we're having a little bit of success, guys are having fun again."
The fun should continue in Indianapolis, even if the Badgers stub their toes a time or two first. Purdue was viewed as the top threat to derail Wisconsin, especially after nearly beating Notre Dame in South Bend in Week 2. But the team with the train logo has careened off the tracks.
The Boilermakers have been outscored 85-20 in their first two Big Ten games, both at home. A defensive front that was supposed to be the strength of the team got manhandled by Michigan and Wisconsin to the tune of 771 combined rushing yards. After completing a 52-yard pass on the first snap Saturday, Purdue was outgained 598-119 until a meaningless long touchdown run against the Badgers' second-string defense.
Although coach Danny Hope received a two-year contract extension last December that runs through 2016, support for Hope among the Boilers' fan base is crumbling rapidly. There were large swaths of empty seats to start Saturday's homecoming contest. By the time Wisconsin grabbed a double-digit lead and rain started falling, the crowd thinned to the point of embarrassment. Purdue is staring at an 0-3 Big Ten start with next week's game at Ohio State and does not appear remotely capable of making up the virtual two-game deficit to the Badgers in the standings.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who preaches about going 1-0 every week, won't let his team look ahead to what seems inevitable. When asked about his team's status, he pointed to next week's rivalry game against Minnesota as the only focus.
"We don't live in a bubble," linebacker Chris Borland said. "We understand what we can do and that we control our own destiny. But I think we do a good job of taking it one game at a time."
In reality, the Badgers only need to take care of business to have a one-game shot at a third Rose Bowl. If they can play like they did Saturday, they might just earn their way back to Pasadena.
1dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
2dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney