LINCOLN — Nebraska I-back Rex Burkhead, who hadn't played since Oct. 20 before getting 16 second-half carries Friday at Iowa, came out of the game in good health.
“He's doing great,” Husker coach Bo Pelini said Sunday. “He feels great and ready to go.”
Burkhead, nagged by a left knee injury, already had sat four straight games and was being held in reserve against the Hawkeyes. The senior then gained 69 yards with a touchdown after halftime as the Huskers clinched their berth in the Big Ten championship game Saturday night in Indianapolis.
“He ran hard. He ran with passion,” Pelini said on a Big Ten teleconference. “He did some really good things, made some really tough yards.”
In NU's first meeting with Wisconsin, Burkhead carried 18 times for 86 yards on Sept. 29.
Wisconsin expects linebacker Chris Borland to be ready for the Big Ten championship game after missing the last two weeks with a hamstring injury. The Badgers also hope leading receiver Jared Abbrederis will be ready after suffering a concussion Saturday at Penn State.
“I know he felt good coming off the plane,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “I know if it's in Abby's hands, I think he'll be ready to practice by Tuesday.”
UW eyes repeat of last year
Wisconsin would like to take the same route to a Big Ten championship that it did a year ago, when it rebounded from a crushing 37-31 regular-season loss at Michigan State to beat the Spartans 42-39 in the inaugural Big Ten title game.
The Badgers lost 30-27 at Nebraska this season after leading 27-10 in the third quarter.
“I told our coaches this morning, and we'll tell the players this afternoon, that there's never been a team in Big Ten history that's been able to do this and win, and we own that title right now, being able to do it last year in a redemption game against Michigan State,” Bielema said Sunday.
But both Bielema and Pelini said the teams have changed in the last two months.
“I don't really put much stock in what happened the first game, and I'm sure Wisconsin won't, either,” Pelini said. “It's a different time, different place, different point in the year. The first game isn't going to affect what happens in the second game.”
Title game experience
Wisconsin has the experience of winning last year's Big Ten championship, but Nebraska has many veterans who played in Big 12 title games in Dallas. NU lost 23-20 to Oklahoma in 2010 and 13-12 to Texas in 2009.
They know how to handle the situation, Pelini said, and those losses might add some “extra motivation.”
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“I don't know if you need that at this time of year, but we fell short against two really good football teams in two really good football games,” he said. “We fell short, and we're trying to knock the door down.”
Bielema: Big Ten game special
Bielema made it sound as if Nebraska and its fans will be in for a special trip. He said the pageantry and events surrounding the 2011 Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium were impressive, and that the Big Ten has set the bar high.
“To be quite honest, it's unlike anything else I've ever done,” Bielema said.
Bielema took part in the Big 12 championship game in 2003 as an assistant at Kansas State when the Wildcats upset No. 1 Oklahoma 35-7. But, he said, “It didn't have near the big-game feel that this thing has.”
As a “Big Ten traditionalist” who grew up in Illinois, played at Iowa and lives in Wisconsin, Bielema said he was among those who wondered if the league title game should be played outdoors. His first trip to Indianapolis settled that question.
“As far as the ability to give our fans the best opportunity to watch a great game, it probably couldn't be any better than it is in Indianapolis,” he said.
Does playing inside Dec. 1 benefit Nebraska and all its offensive speed and weapons?
Bielema said he doesn't see it as any different than when the Huskers were on their home turf playing in good weather Sept. 29.
“So I don't know if they can play much faster just because they've got a roof over their head,” he said.
No bulletin-board material
Pelini and the Huskers won't be waiting for any bulletin-board material coming out of the Wisconsin camp this week — and said NU didn't make much out of what it heard the last time around.
Before the game in Lincoln, Badgers defensive end David Gilbert questioned any improvement in Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez's game and mechanics, and said, “It still looks like he's skipping rocks out there to me.”
Gilbert also called Martinez “a soft kid.”
It earned Gilbert a spot on the Wisconsin bench to start the game.
“Let's face it: Guys say things all the time,” Pelini said Sunday. “David Gilbert was just trying to motivate his team, whatever it is. We don't pay attention to that, the same way if somebody on our team is going to say something it's not going to affect Wisconsin.”
— Rich Kaipust