"This week I've heard about big game, big stage, all these big things," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "What we have is a big opportunity. What are we going to do with it?"
In a word: dominate. After being criticized for playing weak nonconference competition, No. 7 Wisconsin answered its detractors in every way imaginable during Saturday's 48-17 victory against the No. 8 team in the country. The Badgers were efficient on offense in totaling 486 yards and 6.9 yards per play against the vaunted Huskers, and fluid on defense in pressuring Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez constantly.
Embracing the big stage is one thing, but now the Badgers will have to embrace the greater expectations that come after kicking in the teeth of a Top-10 team. Wisconsin no longer is considered the favorite just to win the conference championship, it is among one of the few teams that have a chance to play for the national title in New Orleans.
How fitting that the crystal national championship trophy was sitting on the sideline during ABC's coverage of Saturday's game.
"It's huge for our football team, huge for our football program," said senior quarterback Russell Wilson, who was 12 for 16 for 233 yards and two touchdowns at halftime before the Badgers scaled back the passing game.
"The fact that we came out with a win, the fact that we played a great game and the defense stepped up and made some great plays for us and got the offense the ball back … against a great team in Nebraska, is pretty awesome."
For a team to get anointed with national title hopes, dominance needs to come from all areas. Against Nebraska, just as it had in a 4-0 nonconference start, it did. Of their 486 yards (a season high allowed by Nebraska), the Badgers had 255 and two TDs through the air and 231 and four scores on the ground.
Junior Montee Ball ran for four touchdowns and 151 yards in his career-high 30 carries. He extended his scoring streak to 11 games and punished Nebraska's front four by lowering his shoulder and averaging 5 yards per rush.
"We really embraced (the opportunity) because these past games, it was hard not to focus on this team, and now, this week, we were able to focus on (Nebraska)," Ball said. "Just to get out there and really show the world what we are capable of doing, the sky is the limit."
A national title contender also has to be able to bounce back from adversity, and the Badgers did that, too. After putting themselves in a 14-7 hole, Wisconsin scored 34 straight points, controlled the ball 10 minutes more than the Huskers and turned three Martinez interceptions into 21 Wisconsin points. Wisconsin's offense took advantage by staying on the field after it got the ball. The Badgers converted eight of 12 third downs.
"When we have an offense that can do that, keep them on the field, it's kind of like a second defense almost," said junior linebacker Mike Taylor, who had one of the three interceptions and led the team with 14 tackles. "If we don't let their offense on the field, they can't score."
Lastly, no team competing for a national title can do so without a definitive star, and Wilson is looking like the Badgers' Heisman hopeful. He passed for 255 yards, rushed for 32 and seemed entirely comfortable in the moment.
"If there is a better player in college football right now, I would like to see it," Bielema said. "The big stage, he thrives on it."
It's a good thing, too, because if Wilson and Wisconsin stay on this torrid pace, the stage is only going to get bigger.
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