The Leader of the Pack

With Camp Randall Stadium empty on a summer night in June, Russell Wilson envisioned himself performing on that field in big games with a rowdy crowd behind him. Thanks to another sterling performance, Wilson leaves Camp Randall undefeated, leading the Badgers' offense to 45 unanswered points and on a trip to Indianapolis after a 45-7 blowout over No.20 Penn State.

MADISON - When Russell Wilson first arrived on his official visit last summer, he saw the potential that the Wisconsin experience had to offer.

It was pitch black outside, roughly 9:30 p.m. when Wilson arrived, but Camp Randall Stadium was fully illuminated, allowing Wilson's mind to wander and his expectations to grow.

"I just kind of envisioned in my head all of the fans being in there," Wilson said. "It was a great experience for me. I knew this place was going to be electric every single week in terms of home games. I wanted to be a part of that and I wanted to play in big games."

It did not play out exactly like Wilson envisioned. It was better. Wilson, the transfer quarterback from N.C. State who has been endeared himself to fans and teammates, sent himself and his fellow 20 seniors out with a bang, engineering a UW offense that score 45 straight points to end the first half to cruise past Penn State, 45-7, to clinch a share of the Big Ten Leaders Division title.

The result has plenty of meaning for Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten). Not only did the Badgers win their 16th straight game at home, the second longest streak in the country and third longest in school history, UW avenged consecutive whoopings where the Nittany Lions had outscored them 86-14 and go 7-0 at home in consecutive seasons for only the second time in school history.

More importantly, the Badgers are heading to Indianapolis for the first Big Ten Championship game by virtue of their head-to-head victory over Penn State, and they get a change to revenge against the Hail Mary Spartans.

quote Home cooking has been good for Wisconsin and it allowed Wilson to have one final showcase in his new home. After some questioned Wilson's performance against top defenses (throwing two costly interceptions against Michigan State and limited to 90 passing yards last week at Illinois).

He put those questions to rest against the nation's fourth-best pass efficiency defense. Wilson completed 15 of 21 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, running and passing through a once-stout secondary for 186 passing and 36 rushing yards.

"I had a feeling he might bring his double-A-plus game this week," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "He's good every week, but I think he is just a guy that thrives in this environment. He wanted to play on the big stage in Indianapolis and there was going to be nothing that denied him to get to where he wanted to be."

Once again, it was no surprise that Bielema gave a lot of credit to the 79,708 fans in attendance, a group he says that has given the team energy all season. In seven home games, Wisconsin has outscored opponents 359-75 with the narrowest margin of victory being 31 points against then-No.8 Nebraska.

After another harrowing loss on the road, this one to Ohio State, Bielema laid out a color-coded four-week plan for his team to follow in order to have the opportunity to get to Indianapolis. Two of those games came at home and both were rowdy environments with the game basically over by halftime.

"Whenever we have a recruit in here, I sit in my office, I'll point and say since I've been here, we've lost four games or whatever it is (with) how many years I want to go back," Bielema said. "It's just an exceptional place. It starts with our fans … This is a loud place when it gets rocking. It's very difficult environment for people to come in and have success."

It also helps having strong will and confidence. The only other time Wisconsin trailed by seven points at home this season, the Badgers turned a 14-7 deficit into a 48-17 crushing over Nebraska. So when a busted coverage led to a 44-yard Penn State passing touchdown midway through the first quarter, it became business as usual.

Wilson drove Wisconsin 76 yards in 10 plays immediately following the score, hooking up with Jared Abbrederis for a 21-yard touchdown pass. The toss gave Wilson a touchdown pass for the 36th straight game, putting him into a tie with former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell for the most consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass in NCAA history.

He was just getting warmed up. After Montee Ball set an NCAA record by scoring a touchdown in his 12th consecutive game, putting Wisconsin up 14-7, Wilson put on a clinic with his legs.

He eluded a sack attempt by D'Anton Lynn to complete an 11-yard pass to Ewing, unleashed two stiff arms on a 20-yard run on third-and-seven with his receivers' blanketed and escaped a collapsing pocket, four tackle attempts and a referee on a 19-yard run down to the PSU 5, setting up Ball's second score and a 21-7 lead.

"The guy put on a show," senior Aaron Henry said of Wilson. "He is making moves out there like you are playing a video game. You think he is down and he spins out of something, stiff arms somebody else, scrambling all over the place, hitting wide open receivers (and) hitting guys with very little room. What this guy brings to the ball club is utterly amazing."

Entering the weekend with the nation's third-best scoring defense at 13.0 points per game, the 28 points allowed by Penn State in first half was more than it has given up in game all season, a result of Wisconsin outgaining Penn State 278-111, holding the ball for 21:54 and two critical turnovers.

Ball's first touchdown plunge was a result of Shelton Johnson picking off Matt McGloin at the 50-yard line and Wilson's four-yard touchdown pass to Nick Toon with 37 seconds left in the half occurred after Conor O'Neill forced and recovered a fumble on a botched kickoff return by Michael Zordich at the PSU 31.

And it only was going to get worse, as Penn State fumbled twice more in the second half, leading to 10 more points.

"That's what did us in at the end of the half," said Penn State coach Tom Bradley of the turnovers, as the Nittany Lions' 45 points allowed were the most since 2000. "Turn the ball over there and then it starts rolling down hill. Zordich's fumble probably sealed our fate … We just didn't play very well today in all phases of the game."

When Wilson wasn't the main culprit, Ball took to the ground, rushing for 156 yards on 25 carries (6.2 average) and four touchdowns, putting him five total touchdowns shy of Barry Sanders NCAA record set in 1988.

That duo helped Wisconsin close the season converting 16 of its last 18 turnovers into points, all in Big Ten play, but the defense that created those turnovers held its fourth straight opponent without any offensive points in the second half.

"Our defense had a chip on its shoulder because everybody was talking about Penn State's defense," Bielema said. "They are very, very good, but I think our defense rises to the challenge, they keep the ball in front of them and try to take every play for what it is."

The task now brings a familiar opponent in an unprecedented situation. One of the benefits from having a championship game is rematches, and one members of that UW locker room had been hoping for since it left East Lansing.

After already proving it has the best quarterback and running back in the conference, consider Lucas Oil Field the stage for Wisconsin to prove it's the best team the conference has to offer.

"We have a great opportunity in front of us," Wilson said. "It's going to be exciting for us and it's two great teams going after it."


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