How Wisconsin’s Running Backs Broke the Nebraska Football Program

HOW THE 'HUSKERS FELL, OR WERE PUSHED, FROM NATIONAL PROMINENCE

2012 B1G Conference Championship Game - By Steve, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Lets get this out of the way: The fact that the Wisconsin-Nebraska game was cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak is unfortunate. But that game pales in comparison to the health of everyone involved in both programs. It was good it was cancelled. Alright, let’s move on.


This is one of the most fascinating stories in college football’s recent history.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers used to be an undisputed national power in college football. They were one of those programs up there with Alabama, USC, Ohio State and other elites around the country. 

Many thought when they joined the Big Ten that they would be one of the flagship programs for the conference. They were brought in to balance the conference and to be a contender. They’d eventually be added to the Big Ten’s West division with Wisconsin. Those two programs were supposed to carry that half of the conference.

Nebraska, and its fans, were certain that they’d not only be dominant in their division, but in the conference as a whole.

The Wisconsin Badgers, or more specifically Wisconsin’s running backs, foiled the Big Ten’s seemingly smart plan.

Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, playing Wisconsin has been a nightmare for Nebraska. Wisconsin’s running backs have specifically tortured the Cornhuskers. This is despite their annual game being the Big Ten’s newest high profile “rivalry” game as the winner gets the Freedom Trophy.

In their nine matchups, the ‘Huskers are 1-8 against the Badgers.

That trophy is pretty used to its shelf in Madison. Nebraska’s lone in-conference win over Wisconsin, in September of 2012, was a three point win at home against a freshman quarterback — Joel Stave. The Badgers’ quarterback ended the game with -33 rush yards, so yeah.

Can you even call this a rivalry? I mean, doesn’t the other team have to win a few times? Seriously, it’s been eight years since Nebraska defeated Wisconsin. They play every year; let that fact marinate. Maybe we could ask Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh this question about his team’s “rivalry” with Ohio State?

OK sorry, back to Nebraska…

Below are the Badgers’ team rushing yards and touchdowns followed by their starting running back’s rushing yards and touchdowns against Nebraska since the ‘Huskers joined the Big Ten:

Game 1: Team: 231 Rush Yards and 5 TDs – Montee Ball: 141 Rush Yards and 4 TDs – WIN

Game 2: Team: 56 Rush Yards and 3 TDs – Montee Ball: 91 Rush Yards and 3 TDs – LOSS

Game 3: Team: 539 Rush Yards and 8 TDs – Montee Ball: 202 Rush Yards and 3 TDs – WIN*

Game 4: Team: 581 Rush Yards and 7 TDs – Melvin Gordon: 408 Rush Yards and 4 TDs – WIN

Game 5: Team: 147 Rush Yards and 1 TD – Dare Ogunbowale: 117 Rush Yards and 0 TDs – WIN

Game 6: Team: 223 Rush Yards and 2 TDs – Dare Ogunbowale: 120 Rush Yards and 1 TD – WIN

Game 7: Team: 353 Rush Yards and 3 TDs – Jonathan Taylor: 249 Rush Yards and 2 TDs – WIN

Game 8: Team: 370 Rush Yards and 4 TDs – Jonathan Taylor: 221 Rush Yards and 3 TDs – WIN

Game 9: Team: 324 Rush Yards and 2 TDs – Jonathan Taylor: 204 Rush Yards and 2 TDs – WIN

*One Passing TD by Badger RB, too.

Game 10 …was cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Blah.

Game 1 was obviously Nebraska’s debut in the Big Ten. Game 3 was the 2012 Big Ten Conference Championship Game. Game 4 saw Melvin Gordon set the NCAA record for most rushing yards in a single game (408 yards). The mark has since been surpassed, but Gordon only played three quarters against Nebraska.

Get this: Wisconsin rushes for 300+ yards against Nebraska more often than they don’t.

All in all, Wisconsin has rushed for 2,824 Yards, 35 Rush TDs in nine games as a team against Nebraska since the ‘Huskers joined the Big Ten.

In those nine games, Nebraska ran for 1,393 Yards and 16 Rush TDs. Look at that disparity, sheesh.

The Badgers average 314 Rushing Yards and 4 Rush TDs per game against Nebraska as a team. Nebraska averages 155 Rushing Yards and 1.75 Rush TDs against Wisconsin in Big Ten play.

Wisconsin’s starters have rushed for 1,755 Yards and 22 Rush TDs in those nine games. That means the Badgers’ starters have far out-ran the whole of Nebraska’s teams year after year.

The Badgers’ starting running back is averaging 195 Rushing Yards and 2.5 Rush TDs per game against Nebraska.

Assuming a 13 game schedule, Wisconsin’s starters are on a 2,535 Rush Yards and 32 Rush TD pace against Nebraska since they joined the Big Ten. If Wisconsin played Nebraska every week, the Heisman Trophy would be coming to Madison every year, no debate.

Reading the stats above, we think there is one burning question: How in the hell is Nebraska so unable to game-plan for the run?

It’s no secret what the Badgers plan to do every year. Divisional, and especially rivalry games, are famous for the cliche “its always a tough game and anybody can win these match-ups because both teams know each other so well.” Well, nope, that does not apply to Nebraska vs Wisconsin.

Great Fact Alert: The average score of a Wisconsin-Nebraska Big Ten game is 40 to 22 Badgers.

The Badgers won their first matchup (since the 1970s), in primetime, when both teams were ranked in the top 10. Wisconsin has currently won seven straight games against the Cornhuskers.

This “rivalry” dates back to 1901, an 18-0 win by Wisconsin. The teams played twice in the 1960s and 1970s.

Including those five games, Nebraska’s worst winning percentage all-time among teams it’s played at least 10 times is against Wisconsin (.286). On average, when these two teams play, Wisconsin wins by 8.1 points — the highest negative point differential for any team Nebraska’s played at least 12 times all-time.

The Cornhuskers could win 113-0 this year and still have a negative all-time point differential against the Badgers.

Nebraska would have to beat the Badgers in the next eight years to tie the series in Big Ten play.

Nebraska may want to just head back to the Big 12 after all.

I mean, their relationship with the conference is strained and getting more contentious by the day. They aren’t on the same level academically with other Big Ten schools, but the conference seemingly made an exception because of how dominant their football is. Or was, I guess we should say.

How Nebraska’s Been Crippled

As a program, the ‘Huskers have been shell-shocked ever since that first Big Ten loss in Madison. They lost their confidence, their mojo, their direction. They tried to get it back in 2012, but that Conference Championship Game matchup was the nail in the coffin of Nebraska as a national power.

Bo Pelini (Nebraska head coach for seven years and former Green Bay Packers linebacker coach) was fired in 2014 and the ‘Huskers are on their third coach of their first decade in the Big Ten.

They’ve won just two Bowl games since joining the Big Ten and haven’t reached a bowl in the last three years. That’s their longest bowl-less streak since the 1950s when there were a hell of a lot less bowl games to get invited to.

Since the 1970s the ‘Huskers have averaged five bowl game wins a decade. Like we said, they won just two in their first 10 years in the Big Ten.

Remember, Nebraska was only 14 years removed from having one of the last great dynasties in college football when they joined the Big Ten.

Had the Badgers not beaten the ‘Huskers in the 2011 Big Ten opener, they would have had at least a 10 win season. Perhaps they would have won the Big Ten. Would everything have been different if they weren’t humbled as they were welcomed to the Big Ten?

The Badgers completely rewrote the plans for who would lead the Big Ten every year and for what Nebraka’s future would look like. The Big Ten foresaw a Nebraska team that would take over one half of the conference and would be regular players for the Big Ten Championship Game — as well as in the National Championship landscape.

Nah, Bucky said that’s our job.

One slightly less obvious side-effect to the Badgers crushing the Big Ten’s plans bringing in a dominant Nebraska  program is this:

In our opinion the Big Ten has an ultimate goal of 16 teams. Bringing in Nebraska and then the Huskers finding instant and sustained success would have been the perfect way to lure both Oklahoma and Texas out of the Big 12 and into the Big Ten.

It’s a natural fit, right? Two more prestigious and successful college football teams could have possibly come to the Big Ten and the Big 12 would have all but dissolved. Well, that never happened, but it sure could have. We think the Badgers’ dominance over Nebraska may have caused both of those teams to stay put. Not because those programs were “afraid” of the Badgers, but just that they didn’t see Nebraska enjoying their change in scenery. The Big 12 seems to be in alright shape moving forward, too — oh well.

But the failing of Nebraska as a national power has been a quick process. It’s as if each subsequent win by the Badgers put the ‘Huskers further into panic mode.

Since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska is on its third full-time head coach with each accomplishing less than the last. The instability of the Nebraska program has come at the hands of the Badgers and their running backs. We see direct parallels.

Their losing of these nationally televised games to the Badgers couldn’t have helped their recruiting efforts and the changes in coaches have further diminished the program’s stability and prestige. It’s now been four years since the ‘Huskers have even been to a bowl game.

How incredible is that?

And what is even more troubling about this trend for Nebraska is that it used to be one of the premier rushing programs in the country. Exhibit A being former ‘Husker and Packer great Ahman Green. Not only have the Badgers beaten them year after year, they’ve stolen their spotlight as a place where running backs want to be.

But here’s how it all started to unravel in Lincoln.

Welcome to the Conference

October 1, 2011

The first Nebraska-Wisconsin game was nationally televised on ABC, primed to be one of the games of the year in college football. It was Nebraska’s first taste of Big Ten football, under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium.  The home-team Badgers were ranked No. 7 and Nebraska was ranked No. 8, but the end result was an all-time Top 10 blowout.

Quite the welcome to the conference for the ‘Huskers.

The other co-founder of this site and myself watched this game together just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana of all places. It was at my sister’s apartment. The anticipation for this game could be felt from there.

“College Gameday” was held in Madison and the world was finally going to see Nebraska in the Big Ten. Wisconsin won 48-17 and it wasn’t that close.

Sure, quarterback Russell Wilson was dynamic and even ran for a touchdown, but Montee Ball’s four rushing touchdowns absolutely ruled the day.

No one knew what the next decade had in store for this “rivalry” but we’re guessing most people wouldn’t have assumed this is how most of the games would play out. But here we are. This first matchup wasn’t a fluke, it would become the norm. In fact, the Cornhuskers’ win the following year would be the fluke.

However Nebraska wouldn’t be all smiles when it came to playing Wisconsin in 2012. Sure, they won the first game, but the rematch, wouldn’t be so kind to the ‘Huskers.

The Day the Sky Fell on Nebraska

December 12, 2012

We were there.

‘We’ being the two founders of PackersHistory.com, as well as my mother. We were sitting in the Nebraska fan section, a wonderfully serendipitous happening. The 2012 Big Ten Conference Championship Game was one of those rare wow-moments in sports. The No. 14 Nebraska Cornhuskers were 14 point favorites and the Wisconsin Badgers were unranked, with a backup quarterback leading the team.

What transpired was the greatest single-game rushing performance in NCAA history.

70-31 Badgers.

That game in Indianapolis not only changed the Husker program, but it did something to the Nebraska fans right in front of our eyes. Their arrogance and confidence turned into an understanding that Wisconsin (and possibly the Big Ten) just played a different brand of football. A brand of football that’s more physical, tough, and intimidating than the Big 12.

Shocked isn’t even the right word, it was more a sense of resignation. Their greatest fear of changing conferences had come true.

The other half of PackersHistory.com made a pretty funny joke when we made our way to our seats. He said, “Ya know, I’m quite impressed with how many Nebraska fans showed up. That’s quite a long tractor ride all the way to Indianapolis.”

It set the tone for the night.

Nebraska fans were incredibly arrogant before the game started. One woman in the group seated beside us told my mother, “don’t take it personally when we start cheering when we start winning the game.”

They left in the third quarter.

This was the game that officially put Bo Pelini on the hot seat in our opinion. Sure, he coached for a few more years, but this was the beginning of the end of the Pelini Era in Lincoln.

Taken from a piece we previously published on the site:

“There is one game that truly represents the unparalleled modern greatness of the Badgers’ running attack. It was the greatest single-game rushing performance that college football has ever seen.

The Wisconsin Badgers took on the No. 14 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 2012 Big Ten Conference Championship Game in Indianapolis.

The Badgers were 14 point dogs in the game to the Cornhuskers according to Vegas. The Badgers ended up winning 70-31 (and it could have been worse). That’s a 53 point swing in the spread to the finished score. Is that the largest swing ever in football history? It has to be in a game in a Power Five conference right? Especially a championship game.

The Badgers had two running backs go for 200 yards in the same game (Ball and Gordon) and another went for 100 (White). Those three running backs combined for eight rushing touchdowns, too.

Eight!

Wisconsin’s rushing yard total came to 539 yards for an average of 10.78 yards per rush as a team (against a 10-3 Nebraska squad that had won their previous six games, including four straight ranked, conference opponents). The Badgers, on 50 carries, didn’t fumble the ball once.

Wisconsin completed just eight passes in the game and still scored 70 points. The Badgers’ lone passing touchdown was by a running back, too (White).

It really was the greatest single-game rushing performance in NCAA history and it came on one of the biggest stages — in a Conference Championship Game. The effort earned the Badgers a berth in the Rose Bowl, despite their unassuming record.

“Go Big Red!” was chanted quite sarcastically that night in Indy. We know that to be true, we were there.”

Memories don’t get much better than that. However if you were at the following game it might be close…

408 Rushing Yards in Three Quarters

November 15, 2014

I watched this game from the basement of an Irish bar in the Streeterville neighborhood of downtown Chicago following a shift that bled into the first quarter.

Just as I took a seat at the bar I got a text from the other half of PackersHistory.com that said, “Melvin is going for 400 today.” Completely random. He was running well in the first quarter, but nothing out of the ordinary. Somehow the bold prognostication came through anyway.

Against literally all odds, he was right.

It was Gordon’s “Heisman Moment” despite the fact that he, wrongly, finished second in voting that year. His 408 yards were the most ever in NCAA history at the time… and he did it in three quarters.

Snow began to fall harder throughout the game and it just felt like one of those special Big Ten moments. And it was. By halftime Gordon only had one touchdown. By the end of the third quarter he’d have four rushing touchdowns to go along with his 400+ rushing yards. On almost every run he’d break a tackle, bounce outside and gain a plethora of yardage.

He averaged 16.3 yards per rush for the game and he sustained that success over 25 carries.

It was one of the most jaw-dropping moments in Badgers history. Every time he took a handoff you thought, “he can’t possibly break another long run” and then he on his way again. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see another game like that, especially in the snow with a trophy on the line.

This is the game that got Bo Pelini fired, in our opinion. No, he wasn’t fired directly following the game, but this was the moment that ended his tenure in Nebraska. And he won at least nine games in every season as the Cornhuskers’ head coach.

Still, going 1-4 against the Badgers got him terminated. And you cannot convince us otherwise. Had Pelini gone 4-1 against Wisconsin he’d still be the head coach and Nebraska may have not fallen apart so rapidly.

But the Badgers’ running backs weren’t done tormenting the ‘Huskers once Pelini was gone.

Adding Insult to Injury

Various dates: 2017-19

At one point in time we thought that Montee Ball’s 10 touchdowns against the Cornhuskers in three years was the most impressive rushing stat for the Badgers against Nebraska. But then we thought no, surely the 2012 Big Ten Conference Championship Game was more impressive. The Badgers’ team stats were unreal. But then Melvin Gordon put up a record-setting number of rushing yards in the snow in just three quarters. That was the best performance against the ‘Huskers. Has to be.

And then came Jonathan Taylor.

This rivalry had already been one-sided and dominated by Badgers backs, but Taylor took it to a new level. He put up three-straight 200 yard rushing games against the ‘Huskers in his three years in Madison. So disrespectful. Those three games were a part of his NCAA record 12 career 200 yard rushing games. That’s right, one fourth of his record setting games came against Nebraska. Not only that, along with those 200+ yards he put up 2+ touchdowns in each game, too.

Taylor was the insult to the bludgeoning the Badgers had been putting on the Cornhuskers for years.

Like we asked earlier: how can a team, a program, not adjust to the Badgers’ straight-forward attack? How could Taylor keep running for 200 yards when everyone in the world knew he would be taking the next handoff? It just doesn’t quite make sense.

So What Do We Make of This?

We think it’s quite easy to say that the Nebraska Cornhuskers have been thoroughly humbled by the Wisconsin Badgers and the Big Ten. However, it’s disingenuous to not give credit specifically to the Badgers’ running backs.

It really has been Wisconsin’s runners that have not only elevated the Badgers nationally in recent years, but directly and negatively impacted Nebraska’s national position in college football.

Had the ‘Huskers not only not been dominated the the Badgers and their backs over the last decade, who knows what the Big Ten Conference would look like right now. Just imagine if Nebraska had won that first nationally televised in-conference game. Just imagine if they had beaten the Badgers in Indianapolis in that Conference Championship Game.

How different would this “rivalry” be? How different would this conference be?

What if Montee Ball hadn’t terrorized the ‘Huskers? What if Melvin Gordon hadn’t run for 408 yards in three quarters in 2014 against Nebraska? What if Jonathan Taylor didn’t put up three straight 200+ rushing yard games en route to three more Freedom Trophy Game victories?

It’s crazy to think about, but here we are.

What we think is that the Badgers simply broke the Cornhuskers’ will. It started with Ball and continued for the better part of the next decade.

The ‘Huskers are a program that can’t get back to where it once was, in a conference it seemingly doesn’t want to be in and they just seem utterly broken. Their future isn’t as bright as it once was and it’s strange that we can point to one position group on one team over one decade being chiefly responsible for this surpassing occurrence. Nebraska football used to be known for winning, now they’re known for whining.

No, we can’t know exactly how this has happened.

But what we can all agree on is that Wisconsin’s running backs have ruined a historic college football power. There’s a new ‘Big Red’ in the country and only one in the Big Ten (Ohio State is Crimson, after all).

#OnWisconsin …or should we say #GoBigRed

About PackersHistory.com 29 Articles
We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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