INDIANAPOLIS – Nebraska rode a string of second-half comebacks into its first Big Ten Conference championship game.
But once there, the No. 12 Huskers dug a hole so deep that one more rally was impossible.
Wisconsin produced big play after big play to take a 32-point halftime lead en route to a 70-31 victory Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Badgers rushed for 539 yards (on an astronomical 10.8 yards per carry average) and had three players go for more than 100 yards, including two for more than 200.
After the game, a stunned Nebraska coach Bo Pelini took full blame for the loss, which saw his team give up the most rushing yards and second most points in program history.
“I apologize to everybody associated with Nebraska for how we coached, how we played,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
Melvin Gordon rushed for 216 yards on only nine carries. Montee Ball added 202 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.
James White chipped in 109 yards and four touchdowns on 15 touches.
Wisconsin (8-5) didn’t look like a team that had lost three of its previous four games.
Nebraska (10-3) certain didn’t play like a team that had won six in a row.
“Shock doesn’t even begin to explain that. … It was like a leaking boat,” Pelini said. “It was one thing after another. One guy, one problem after another. You get one fixed. There were some things we talked about and corrected, and then it happened again.
“I’ve never been part of a game like that as a coach. At the end of the day, it falls on me. It falls directly on my shoulders because I’m responsible for how those kids play.”
Wisconsin’s offense didn’t surprise Nebraska. But it sure was explosive while repeatedly getting to the edge and around the corner for big gains.
“It was nothing taking us off-guard,” Pelini said. “We practiced 99 percent of what they showed us today. For whatever reason, we didn’t execute. We didn’t make tackles, we didn’t make plays.”
Wisconsin’s onslaught got started almost immediately. Gordon took a reverse 56 yards to give the Badgers a 7-0 lead 1:59 into the game.
Gordon beat safety Daimion Stafford to get around the corner, then maneuvered his was past safety P.J. Smith and cornerback Ciante Evans on his way to the end zone.
“Everything went wrong,” Smith said. “It was a great gameplan. I told coach, ‘it wasn’t your fault.’
“I put this on the defense. We didn’t step up and do what we were supposed to do. It was a great gameplan. We didn’t finish plays.”
Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage resulted in a touchdown – for Wisconsin.
Kenny Bell couldn’t hang onto a pass from Taylor Martinez, but the ball went to cornerback Marcus Cromartie, who went 29 yards to the other way. With only 2:07 gone, the Huskers faced a 14-0 deficit.
Things continued to go against the Huskers. They had a third-and-1 from their own 34-yard line, but penalties for a false start and delay of game pushed them back and make it third-and-11.
Then Martinez changed everything, at least for a few moments.
A mad scramble away from the Badgers took him as far back as the 6. But then he zoomed forward, and once he got past the first down marker, the middle of the field opened up.
More Husker blockers than Wisconsin defenders were near him, and Martinez had just enough gas left to jog into the end zone on a 76-yard touchdown that actually covered much, much more yardage.
With 10:58 to go in the first quarter, it was Wisconsin 14, Nebraska 7.
A 32-yard Brett Maher field goal pulled NU within 14-10 before the game quickly got out of hand.
Wisconsin took a 21-10 lead with 1:01 remaining in the first quarter.
Running back James White took a direct snap in a Wildcat formation and scored on first-and-goal from the 9.
The Wisconsin offense kept gashing the Nebraska defense for big gains on its next possession. Four plays went for at least 12 yards, including a throwback pass from Jared Abbrederis to quarterback Curt Phillips that picked up 27 yards to the 1-yard line.
On the next play, White went in after taking the snap and pushed the lead to 28-10 with 11:11 remaining in the first half.
Wisconsin made it three straight possessions with a touchdown to go ahead 35-10 with 7:15 still left in the second quarter.
The Badgers continued to beat the Huskers to the outside, and Ball took a reverse 16 yards for the TD.
Wisconsin got yet another touchdown before halftime, set up by a 60-yard Gordon run to the 3-yard line with six seconds remaining.
White then threw to a wide-open Sam Arneson in the end zone with two seconds to go.
Halftime: Wisconsin 42, Nebraska 10.
The statistics were just as lopsided as the scoreboard. Wisconsin gained 290 yards on 27 carries.
Gordon had 152 yards on four carries while Ball had 111 on 14.
The Badgers piled up 391 yards of total offense on 37 plays.
Any Husker hopes for a much different second half quickly evaporated. Devin Smith picked off Martinez on the third play after halftime.
On the next snap, Ball went through the middle of the defense untouched for a 9-yard touchdown.
Just 47 seconds into the second half, and Wisconsin held a 49-10 advantage.
Martinez did score from 11 yards out on the drive to snap Wisconsin’s string of 35 unanswered points.
But Ball went 57 yards for his next touchdown, giving Evans a stiffarm at the 15-yard line after spinning away from the crowd at the line of scrimmage.
Next it was White’s turn. He went 68 yards untouched up the middle to become the Badgers’ third 100-yard rusher in the game.
Wisconsin 63, Nebraska 17, 6:42 to go in the third.
To add injury to insult, Bell suffered an injury in the fourth when a defender landed on the back of his leg.
Then on the next play Martinez got suplexed by linebacker Chris Borland as things started to get chippy.
The shockingly ugly game might cause nasty flashbacks for Husker Nation to NU’s 2001 loss to Colorado.
The underdog Buffaloes ran all over No. 1 and undefeated Nebraska (380 yards on 52 carries) to post a stunning 62-36 upset.
The numbers were even worse in this one. And despite that loss in ’01, Nebraska still played for a national title in the Rose Bowl.
This loss ensured no trip to Pasadena for the Huskers.
And no Big Ten title that the team pointed at as the big goal all season long.
“We failed,” Pelini said. “We failed to win a championship. That was the goal coming in and we didn’t get it done.”