Sunday, December 2, 2012
Wisconsin offense saves its best for last
By Adam Rittenberg
INDIANAPOLIS -- They came in droves, as family members, friends and colleagues embraced Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada on what had become a field of dreams at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"That," Canada told one group of well-wishers, "was fun."
It hasn't been a fun season at times for Canada, his staff or the Badgers' players. Of the six assistants Wisconsin lost following the 2011 season, four were on the offensive side, including longtime coordinator Paul Chryst. Another staff change occurred after Week 2 this fall, as Wisconsin dismissed offensive line coach Mike Markuson and promoted a graduate assistant, Bart Miller, to the crucial role.
The Wisconsin offense -- one that had a whole lot of fun the previous few seasons -- stopped and started. It looked great against weaker opponents (Purdue, Illinois, Indiana) and inefficient against better ones (Oregon State, Michigan State). At times, it showed both of its faces in the same game (Nebraska Part 1, Ohio State, Penn State). Canada, the primary playcaller, took his share of heat, even in recent weeks.
"It's been a long year," Canada said. "I'm just really proud of the way our guys stuck together. ... We kept working and kept grinding, and our players kept believing."
The work and the belief culminated Saturday night, as Wisconsin put on a clinic in dismantling Nebraska 70-31 in the league title game. Wisconsin (8-5) is heading back to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year -- the Badgers will be the first five-loss team to play in the game -- and the Badgers punched their ticket in style.
Wisconsin racked up a team-record eight rushing touchdowns and 539 rushing yards, 25 shy of the team record set in the Badgers' previous trip to the Hoosier State (Nov. 10 at Indiana). The Badgers had three running backs eclipse 100 rushing yards for the first time in team history, with freshman Melvin Gordon (9 carries, 216 yards, 1 TD), senior Montee Ball (21 carries, 202 yards, 3 TDs) and junior James White (15 carries, 109 yards, 4 TDs). They averaged 10.8 yards per carry (11.8 yards through the first three quarters).
"I'm just happy they're with us," a beaming Thomas Hammock, the Badgers' running backs coach, said on the field afterward. "They compete hard, and they kept the same level of intensity all season. It obviously showed today."
Linebacker Chris Borland, left, and running back Montee Ball get their hands on the Big Ten hardware.
Although Wisconsin's 70 points tied for the second most in team history in the modern era, the Badgers aren't strangers to big numbers, even in this rocky season. What made Saturday night's performance unique is the variety of plays Canada called and the players executed to perfection.
It started with Gordon, an immense talent from whom Badgers fans have clamored for more, lining up at wide receiver to begin the game. Wisconsin ran both runs and a pass -- White connecting with Sam Arneson for a touchdown -- out of its "Barge" formation. Canada put his spin on the swinging-gate play in the first quarter as quarterback Curt Phillips found fullback Derek Watt while seven of their teammates lined up on the other hashmark. Wisconsin also hit on a wide receiver pass as Jared Abbrederis found a wide-open Phillips to set up a second-quarter touchdown.
"We practiced 99 percent of what they showed us today," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.
It certainly didn't look like it, as Wisconsin repeatedly used its standard plays -- like the jet sweep -- to set up its exotic ones.
"We've been practicing this stuff," Canada said. "That was the beauty of where we were. We felt like we had a chance to run some plays. We really didn't add a lot of plays this week."
Phillips insisted Wisconsin hadn't held back its creativity in recent games against Ohio State and Penn State. But the Badgers were determined to give Nebraska a vastly different look than the one it saw Sept. 29 in Lincoln.
"It was fun," Phillips said. "We practiced a lot of that stuff all season long. We just hadn't necessarily had an opportunity to use it. We had no reason to hold anything back."
Wisconsin undoubtedly was the looser team, in part because no one expected much from a squad that had lost five games and found itself in the title game only because both Ohio State and Penn State had been hit with NCAA sanctions. But no Big Ten team has been in more big games in recent years than the Badgers, who met the moment, especially on offense.
"The expectations were extremely high coming in, no doubt about it," Canada said. "If you want to do it, jump in the deep water with the big sharks and go get it."
Even a freshman such as Gordon understood the magnitude of Saturday's game.
"I kept telling myself, 'This is a big game,'" said Gordon, who averaged 24 yards a carry. "I wanted to install some trust in my coaches and teammates. All practice, all week, I told myself, 'Go hard, go hard, go hard. Something good is going to come out of it. This is a big stage. Make something happen.'"
Although Gordon had much of Badger Nation buzzing, Ball turned in another signature performance, setting the NCAA career rushing touchdowns record (76 total) and tying the NCAA mark for multiple-touchdown games (25). He eclipsed 190 rushing yards for the third time in four games and eclipsed 5,000 rushing yards for his career.
"Hopefully, this performance propels him to the top of the Doak Walker [Award]," head coach Bret Bielema said, "because he's a guy that deserves it in every way."
Many will say Wisconsin doesn't deserve a third straight trip to Pasadena, a first in the Big Ten since Michigan went from 1977 to '79. Some will say Saturday night's offensive explosion was an aberration and that Stanford's defense will provide a reality check Jan. 1.
"We're better than what our record shows," Gordon said. "We know that. We just came up short a couple times. I hope this puts any critics to rest about us being a bad team."
The criticism won't go away, but neither will Wisconsin. The Badgers are headed back to Pasadena.