INDIANAPOLIS — Nebraska arrived hopeful for a Big Ten title and instead endured a 70-31 pulverization at the hands of unranked Wisconsin.
The Badgers, who ran for just 56 yards in a September loss to the Huskers, rushed for 539 yards and eight touchdowns, breaking Nebraska defensive records in both categories. The 70 points surrendered to Wisconsin are the most points ever given up by a Bo Pelini coached defense.
“We came unglued,” the Husker coach said.
Melvin Gordon led Wisconsin with 217 yards, while Montee Ball and James White rushed for 201 and 109 yards respectively. Nebraska kept the game manageable at 21-10 after the first quarter, but fell behind by 32 points by halftime.
“We got flat out embarrassed today,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said.
Coaches and players each absorbed the blame for the loss. Lack of preparation wasn’t the reason, they said. It was a lack of execution and proper coaching.
“It was like a leaking boat,” Pelini said. “It was one thing after another. One problem after another. You get one fixed, and you talk about it. There were some things that we corrected, and it happened again.
“I’ve never been a part of a game like that as a coach. At the end of the day, it falls on me.”
Husker coaches and upperclassmen have tried and failed to capture a conference crown three times. Though they entered this year’s game ranked No. 12 in the BCS poll, favored to win the game by a field goal, the Huskers fell flat.
“It wasn’t just the fact that we got beat,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “It was the way we got beat.”
A 56-yard touchdown run by Gordon and an interception return for a touchdown by Marcus Cromartie sunk the team in a 14-0 hole less than two minutes in, leaving the Huskers desperate to make a play.
With Brandon Kelly barreling toward Taylor Martinez, the Husker quarterback evaded Kelly’s tackle along with four others in the backfield. Martinez took off down field, and 76 yards later found himself in the end zone, adding what at the time seemed like a momentum-swinging play.
“It was 14-nothing, then it was 14-10,” Brown said. “It was a ball game.”
But the Huskers couldn’t capitalize and continued to slip. By halftime, the deficit had reached 32 points.
“We still talked at halftime. ‘We’re going to make the greatest comeback in NCAA history,’” wide receiver Tim Marlowe said.
Nebraska, who had strung together six straight wins and piled up five second-half comebacks this season, felt like it could still fight back.
Three plays into the second half, however, Devin Smith intercepted Martinez. One play later, the Badgers took a 49-10 lead.
“They just took it right out of us from the first drive,” Marlowe said.
From there, the Badger rushing attack took over.
Wisconsin’s offense was propelled by big runs all game long. The Badgers (8-5, 5-4) took off for 40-plus yards on five separate occasions, adding four more plays of 20 yards or more. While the Huskers held the Badgers to 100 yards passing, the Blackshirts were helpless against the run.
“It wasn’t much different, to a large extent, than what happened at Ohio State,” Pelini said.
Against the Buckeyes in October, Pelini’s Huskers gave up 63 points and 498 yards of offense in a game that produced one mistake after another for the defensive unit.
“What do you do? What is defensive football?” Pelini said. “It’s play your gaps. Handle your responsibility. Be where you’re supposed to be and make tackles when you’re there. We did none of the above.”
Offensively, Nebraska approached its season average of 35.4 points, scoring 31 points and gaining 475 yards, but couldn’t deliver plays when the team needed them.
Turnovers stunted much of the growth the Husker offense experienced, as Nebraska threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, falling to 4-3 when losing the turnover battle this season.
“We worked hard all week, and I think our guys felt prepared,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “It just snowballed on us. You couldn’t stop it.”