LINCOLN — The first football game between Nebraska and Wisconsin this season offered a premonition of the Big Ten season for both teams.
The Badgers had a 27-10 third-quarter lead in a Sept. 29 game that the Huskers would eventually rally to win 30-27 in Lincoln.
It was one of four games Wisconsin lost by three points this season. The Badgers finished 7-5, including the last two losses in overtime to Ohio State and Penn State.
For Nebraska, the win over Wisconsin was the first comeback in a season full of them, and the reason behind its march to a 10-2 record and first Legends Division title.
The fine line between the two outcomes — of finishing or not finishing — stands out as the Huskers and Badgers prepare for a rematch Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
NU coach Bo Pelini had trouble during a teleconference Sunday explaining why his team has been on the right side of the ledger at crunch time.
“You just look across the board in college football and it's so close, and there's so much parity out there,” Pelini said. “Week to week, you're going to get tested. I don't know if there's a magic formula that helps you win football games in those close situations, it's just you got to make plays when the time comes.”
Nebraska has won six straight games, even though it trailed at halftime in three and was tied in another. The winning streak started three weeks after the Huskers battled back against Wisconsin from a 27-10 deficit five minutes into the second half.
Pelini pointed to assets such as chemistry, experience and a veteran quarterback like Taylor Martinez as reasons for the comeback ability.
“Let's face it: There's some luck involved,” Pelini said.
If so, Wisconsin hasn't had the same kind of good fortune. But coach Bret Bielema said his Badgers have kept their resolve as they've striven toward a third consecutive Rose Bowl — helped by the fact that Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the Big Ten championship game.
“I think the biggest thing is our kids have come every week ready to play,” Bielema said. “I couldn't be more proud of where they're at. Obviously we'd love to have more wins, but for us to be in the position we are today — to go back to Indianapolis and have a one-shot opportunity to get into the Rose Bowl — is incredible.”
The fact that Wisconsin still has a shot at Pasadena — after going 4-4 in Big Ten play — will be the subject of much conversation this week.
Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) and Penn State (8-4, 6-2) are both currently under NCAA postseason bans, thus ineligible for the Big Ten championship game. The Big Ten did decide, however, to allow either team to be crowned Leaders Division “champion,” so the Buckeyes will receive that trophy.
Bielema said he understood and appreciated the question Sunday about the sentiment from some that Wisconsin shouldn't be returning to Indianapolis, but also wasn't apologizing for the Badgers' appointment with NU.
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“I will say this: When the two teams take the field on Saturday, neither is going to care how the other team got there or what their record is,” he said. “They're just going to be looking to compete for Big Ten championships.”
Bielema also understands that Wisconsin could have made the question irrelevant by winning more.
“I think the optimist in me looks at it and says, 'Hey, we were in those games,'” Bielema said. “Ohio State and Penn State … we lost to them both in overtime, where one play here or there and we could have won. We didn't, and I get it. And that's going to be my task for the next year — to come out with reasons why we have to or show why we can — but it's not going to diminish what we accomplished.”
Pelini also refused to say that the game has lost any luster because one participant will be the third-place team from its division.
“I really don't care what people say about that,” Pelini said, later adding: “That's not taking anything away from Urban Meyer or the kids who played at Ohio State and played their tails off, but there's a reason they're not there.”
Pelini realized back in September that the Huskers and Badgers could meet again — not only because he knew that neither Ohio State and Penn State could make the trip, but also because of his respect for Bielema and his program in Madison.
Since that game, Wisconsin has shored up its offensive line play and seemed to get tailback Montee Ball untracked, but also is playing its third quarterback (Curt Phillips) after losing one to an injury (Joel Stave) and seeing another be largely ineffective (Danny O'Brien).
“I think they're playing really good football,” Pelini said. “Just like us, they've gone through a tough schedule, and I think they're doing a lot of good things. They're a good football team. I think they'll be ready to go.”
Wisconsin also has outlasted the worst of its injury problems, which included some important pieces missing for the first game with the Huskers. And the Badgers expect star linebacker Chris Borland to return from a hamstring injury after missing the last two games.
“We're a completely different football team,” Bielema said.
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>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Iowa game:
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