Nebraska fans checking out airfare for a trip to the Rose Bowl had better not book nonrefundable tickets just yet.
Not with what Wisconsin is doing.
UW locked up its second straight trip to the Big Ten championship game with Saturday’s 62-14 mauling of Indiana. The Badgers won’t win the Leaders Division outright — Ohio State already has clinched a share — but they will go to Indianapolis on Dec. 1 because of the Buckeyes’ NCAA sanctions.
Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) was Team Turmoil in September.
After a sluggish opening win against Northern Iowa and a loss at Oregon State, coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson. Then he changed quarterbacks at halftime of the next game, a lucky victory against Utah State.
What may have looked like panic at the time now is viewed as a coach assessing a weakness and taking bold steps to fix it in time to still contend for a league title.
Bielema and his mentor, Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, shared a big hug on the sideline near the end of the Indiana stomping. They sense a third straight Rose Bowl trip is within reach.
“The record may not be as high as it’s been in years past and our ranking and all that jazz,” Bielema said. “But we are a really good football team.”
Sometimes you can tell how good a team is by who it lost to and by how much.
Case in point: UW’s losses are by three points at No. 15 Oregon State (7-2), three points at No. 16 Nebraska (8-2), and three points in overtime at home against preseason Big Ten favorite Michigan State (5-5).
What should worry No. 6 Ohio State, which travels to Wisconsin this week, and whoever the Badgers face in the Big Ten title game is their reconstituted rushing attack.
UW ran for a school-record 564 yards against Indiana, breaking the old mark of 551 set 38 years ago against Northwestern.
Since changing line coaches and quarterbacks, Wisconsin has gone from averaging 119.7 yards rushing per game to 262.1, moving to 17th nationally.
The running revival has a Nebraska connection.
Omaha native Bart Miller, who started the season as a graduate assistant, took over as offensive line coach when Markuson was fired.
“Bart grew up on the Huskers of old that we knew with Tom Osborne and Milt Tenopir,” his father and Nebraska graduate, Clark, said Sunday from Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Bart, 27, lived in Omaha to age 15 before the family moved to Chicago in 2000 for Clark’s work as an architect with HDR. Bart played youth football under former Husker running back Tim Wurth and was on the freshman team at Omaha Westside. He later played collegiately at New Mexico.
Bielema said he wouldn’t have promoted Miller during the season if he wasn’t confident he could do the job.
“He’s definitely got the respect of his players in the room,” Bielema said. “Just because they put ‘Coach’ on your shirt doesn’t mean they’re going to respect you. You’ve got to earn that. I really like the way he has handled it.”
The Badgers also like the way Miller has helped Wisconsin return to its DNA — a smash-mouth run game.
Indiana found out the hard way Saturday when Montee Ball rushed for 198 yards and three touchdowns, and James White added 161 yards and two touchdowns.
“We do certain things here at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “We like to play football in other peoples’ yard, meaning we like to move the line of scrimmage past where we started and have backs make decisions on their own terms.
“Bart brought that back, just knocking people off the ball. Pass-pro wise, he cleaned up some of our techniques.”
Better communication also helped.
“Bart has cleaned up the verbiage of offensive line play really well,” Bielema said. “If you get beat and you know what you’re doing, that’s one thing. But if you’re unaware of your role, we’ve got issues.”
Bielema hasn’t promised the job to Miller for good.
“We’ll take that whole thing under consideration at the end of the year,” the head coach said. “But he has given me every indication he can handle the job. I really like the results we’ve seen on a daily basis.”
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