Saturday, November 10, 2012
Tough road back to Indy ends easily for UW
By Adam Rittenberg
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema addressed his team Friday night, he read a list of approximately 20 teams that recently had been among the nation's elite but had fallen on hard times.
Teams like Wisconsin. Teams with worse records than the Badgers.
"The one thing I've constantly got to be aware of as a head coach is the temperature of my team, what are they feeling," Bielema said. "They were unranked and lost a heartbreaker to Michigan State. But what I was trying to stress was the character of this room would show [Saturday]. ... I rattled off a bunch of BCS teams that are in the thick of it but are 6-3 or [worse]. I wanted to remind them that teams either quit, or they battle forward.
"Obviously, they answered the bell today."
Wisconsin's road back to Indianapolis has been filled with obstacles this season, but the final leg proved to be surprisingly easy as the Badgers ensured they'll be back at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1. Behind a dominant offensive line and a stable of dominant running backs, led by Montee Ball, Wisconsin crushed Indiana 62-14 at Memorial Stadium.
A program known for its ground game piled up more rushing yards (564) than it ever has before, tying for the sixth-highest total in Big Ten history and the highest in a league game since 1975 (Michigan, 573 yards). Little about Wisconsin's offense resembled the record-setting units of 2010 and 2011, but it felt like old times Saturday as the Badgers, despite playing with their third starting quarterback (Curt Phillips), took control immediately and never looked back.
Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) looked like Wisconsin. And Indiana (4-6, 2-4) looked like Indiana.
"It did a little bit," said tight end Sam Arneson, who recorded his first career touchdown on his second career catch on Wisconsin's second possession. "When you're rolling and they can't really slow you down, it feels pretty good."
As much turmoil as Wisconsin has been through this season -- nearly being shut out at Oregon State, firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson after two games, enduring a miscommunication at the end of the Nebraska game, losing top quarterback Joel Stave in the Michigan State loss -- the Badgers found a way to fulfill the consensus preseason expectation of reaching Indianapolis. They've lost three games by a total of nine points, dominated the teams they were supposed to beat and, at times, looked like the team we'd grown accustomed to seeing the past two years.
Wisconsin beat Indiana 83-20 in 2010 and 59-7 last year. The Hoosiers, while exposed Saturday, are undoubtedly a better team, and Wisconsin still rolled.
"This is the group I've coached for seven years," Bielema said. "I know this record may not be as high as it has in years past, or our ranking, but we're a really good football team."
Quarterback Curt Phillips did his share to help Wisconsin in his first career start on Saturday.
The Badgers looked like it Saturday, mounting eight-play touchdown drives on their first two possessions. Even when Indiana showed some life in the second quarter, Wisconsin removed any doubt as James White raced in from 69 yards out on third-and-16.
And while Wisconsin didn't put too much on Phillips' shoulders, the senior made some nice contributions in his first career start, namely a fourth-down conversion early in the second quarter and a 52-yard run to set up a field goal. Phillips has overcome three ACL surgeries since the spring of 2010.
"The plan was to not put a lot on Curt," Bielema said. "And obviously it worked very, very well."
After finishing with 19 net rush yards in the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin averaged 8.8 yards per attempt Saturday, nearly setting another team mark (8.91 yards per carry against Hawaii in 1996).
"It's the same formula we've had any time we've run the ball successfully," guard Ryan Groy said. "It's getting on blocks, being assignment-sound, and it's finishing. It's simple concepts, but it's everybody doing their part."
Ball certainly did his share Saturday, rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 27 attempts in three quarters of work. The senior passed Ricky Williams and moved into sole possession of second place on the NCAA's all-time touchdowns list with 77, one shy of Miami University's Travis Prentice.
The 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist has been at his best during the stretch run, averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. He has been pretty good in the Hoosier State -- 445 rush yards, six touchdowns against Purdue and Indiana -- and gets one final opportunity Dec. 1 in Indy.
"I didn't even think about that," Ball said, smiling. "Yeah, glad to get back to Indianapolis."
Wisconsin will return to Lucas Oil, but it'll have an asterisk if it doesn't beat Ohio State and Penn State to share the Leaders Division title. If you think the Badgers will pack it in these last two weeks, you're sadly mistaken. Despite Saturday's result, Ball said Wisconsin is "still searching" for a statement win.
Next week against undefeated Ohio State would be the perfect time.
"Certain teams are handicapped, but we want to make sure that we go to Indy because we won every game," Ball said. "That's what we're going to try to fight for."
Indiana is left to fight for bowl eligibility and needs two road wins (Penn State, Purdue) to get there. Despite a very real chance to reach Indianapolis, Indiana showed how far it still must go on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with overthrows and Indiana had just two first downs in the first quarter, the kiss of death for an up-tempo spread offense. The defense showed a bit of life in the second quarter but had no answer for Ball, White (161 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Melvin Gordon (96 rush yards, 1 TD).
"They are a great team," Hoosiers defensive lineman Adam Replogle said. "We knew what they were. It's Wisconsin."
The Wisconsin of old showed up Saturday.
If the same product shows up in the coming weeks, the Badgers' difficult road could lead back to Pasadena.