Notes: Opportunity Knocking

While nobody could blame Wisconsin for preaching revenge against No.14 Nebraska - one of five teams to hand the Badgers a one-possession lost this season - in the days leading to Saturday's Big Ten Championship, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said the rally cry this week has taken a far different tone.

MADISON - With an upbeat outlook and a sense of excitement heard in his voice, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema showed no signs of a frustrated signal caller looking to make sense of a third overtime loss that has besieged his team in the past four weeks.

A chance to salvage the season will do that to a head coach that has had to deal with more than his fair share of frustrations in a once-hyped season.

Make no mistake about it, the only reason Wisconsin is heading to Indianapolis this weekend to face No.14 Nebraska is become the Leaders Division's top two teams – Ohio State and Penn State – are home for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions.

But Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) is not looking at Saturday's rematch from a 30-27 road defeat Sept. 29 as a chance for revenge. Rather, it's looking at the prospect of playing in a third straight Rose Bowl as opportunity, and nothing more.

"I told our guys, ‘Hey, you're a 7-5 team going to Indianapolis,'" Bielema said on Monday. "If you were 8-5, 11-1, 12-0, you would still have to do the exact same thing you have to do this weekend, which is play Nebraska for an opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl.

"I know there's ten other teams in the league that would love to be in our position. To have this opportunity is something we're going to cherish."

That's why the game film from Saturday's 24-21 overtime loss at Penn State – the fifth loss Wisconsin has suffered this season by seven points or less – will likely not be viewed. One reason is because it's a new season and second is because the schemes between the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers are completely different.

That's why Bielema instructed his assistant coaches to rewatch the Nebraska-Wisconsin game film with the critical eye it gave the film the day after the team returned from Lincoln.

"As coaches, how did we prepare ourselves to do well or not do well and take it from there," said Bielema. "We've got to be our own hardest critic."

Riding a six-game winning streak heading into the conference's second championship game, Nebraska (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) is tops in the Big Ten in total offense (460.9 per game) and rushing offense (252.1 yards per game) and second in scoring offense (35.4 points per game).

On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin is second in scoring defense (18.1 per game) and rush defense (111.3 per game). The run defense has had its issues, such letting Penn State tailback Zack Zwinak rush for 179 yards, a season-high for a UW opponent, last weekend, and allowing the Huskers to total 259 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per carry in the two team's first meeting.

Coupled with Wisconsin's troubles running the ball, the Badgers were outgained by 203 yards on the ground and went 4 of 15 on third-down situations.

"The line of scrimmage is always a (big) deal with us," said Bielema. "And really third down got to be an issue, just the ability to convert. It's one thing to get us in manageable situations. If it's a third and four, third and eight, it doesn't matter. We have to have success. With an offense you're facing, they're so explosive, you're going to have some series where they're going to make a play. They're a good offense. You can't routinely shut them down."

Wisconsin experienced that explosiveness in the second half when quarterback Taylor Martinez finally caught fire. Down 27-10 in the third quarter, Martinez led the Nebraska on four straight scoring drives in the second half, including a 38-yard run and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kyler Reed that turned the momentum.

After Wisconsin junior defensive end David Gilbert criticized Martinez's throwing style earlier in the week, the Nebraska quarterback responded by completing 17 of 29 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for a team-best 107 yards.

"A guy that, I think, earned the respect of all of our players after our game, just about how well he could execute the throwing game," Bielema said of Martinez. "We all know he's a good athlete. We know he can run. But he's very, very clean and precise in his throws, his reads, his reactions, and ultimately on his throws."

The players that spoke after the game didn't sugarcoat the fact that they felt they let the game get away from them. The Huskers defense limited Wisconsin to just 90 total yards after halftime, including 12 rushing yards. Senior tailback Montee Ball was one of those outspoken ones, as he scored three of UW's four touchdowns but was held to only 34 yards on 15 carries (2.3 per carry) after halftime.

"You have to learn from the mistakes you made the first time," said Bielema, "and also realize the advantages you have from playing someone a second time."

There's also an element, according to Bielema, of being back at Lucas Oil Field. While Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini downplayed the advantage Wisconsin had of winning a rematch game in the stadium last December against Michigan State, Bielema admitted that the home of the Indianapolis Colts is unlike any venue in the conference.

"It's a really unique experience, more so than any other game I'd ever been involved with, bowl games or anything, just all the different little things that you have to be engaged in, in addition to playing in Lucas Oil Stadium," said Bielema, noting the different sightlines pointed out to him by former UW and Indianapolis quarterback Jim Sorgi. "It's a very different stadium. It's a very, very unique environment and something that our kids have already been there."

Finally Full Strength

Receiving a positive report from team doctors Monday, Bielema expects junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis – the team's leader in catches (44), yards (764), touchdowns (5) and yards per game (69.5) – and sophomore right guard Kyle Costigan to return to non-contact practice Tuesday and be ready Saturday.

Bielema also mentioned that junior linebacker Chris Borland – who missed the team's last two games – should go through some scout team work tomorrow and also be available, meaning UW will play with a full complement of players that it didn't have in the conference opener.

"This year's game, we didn't have (Pat) Muldoon and (Brendan) Kelly, two of our top three defensive ends," said Bielema. "(We) didn't have Shelton Johnson and Chris Borland, an hour before the Nebraska game this year, told me he (was) going to be able to play. He hadn't practiced all that week and obviously went out there and played. A true warrior. He sucked it up."

The only player expected to miss the game who played in the Sept. 29 game is quarterback Joel Stave (broken collarbone).

Quotable

In a championship game like this, how much do you think momentum plays a factor in how the two teams play?

"Saturday, you're going to see two teams is who have put themselves in a position to be there. Neither one are going to give a hoot how they got there. We played two heart breakers to two of the teams that lost in overtime to two teams that we battled for the title with, unfortunately lost, and maybe that gives them justice to carry that with them because they're done playing now.

"We have an opportunity to play two games in front of us, and what has not destroyed us has definitely made us a little bit stronger. I think our kids, after being around them last night, might have been more excited for a Tuesday practice at any point in the year, which is kind of crazy to think. But it isn't a false bravado. I think this morning I've seen guys up putting in some overtime. I've just never seen that much this early in the week. So they know what's in front of them.

"Nebraska, obviously, didn't have their best performance on Friday, but I don't think they're going to let that deter anything they've got coming into the stadium. It's going to be an electric environment, and one, as we know, from last year's game will be energy charged and full of emotions and energy."


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