INDIANAPOLIS - After using four come-from-behind victories in its past six games to make it to its first Big Ten Championship, Nebraska finally dug a hole far too deep to get itself out of on Saturday night.
A miserable first half put the Huskers in a 17-point deficit to Wisconsin in their first meeting back in Lincoln, and it was the same story in the rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium. This time, however, NU wasn't able to mount a record comeback.
The Badgers jumped all over Nebraska from the very first snap to take a two touchdown lead barely two minutes into the game, and it simply snowballed from there in what finally ended in a 70-31 destruction.
Wisconsin's 70 points were the most ever given up by a Bo Pelini defense, and their 643 total yards were just 16 shy of tying the school record for most yards allowed in a game. The Badgers' 539 rushing yards were the most ever given up by Nebraska.
For Wisconsin, it marked its third consecutive Big Ten title and a trip to take on Stanford in the Rose Bowl. For the Huskers, they were left searching for answers after yet another missed championship opportunity.
"I apologize to everybody associated with Nebraska football for how we coached, how we played," said head coach Bo Pelini, who is now 0-3 in conference championship games. "It's not acceptable."
Nebraska probably couldn't have imagined a much worse start than how things played out in the first few minutes, as the Huskers found themselves trailing 14-0 just five plays into the game.
Wisconsin's offense was completely dialed in to open the game, as it wasted no time marching down the field and striking on its first possession. On the fourth play of the drive, freshman running back Melvin Gordon took a reverse around the left end, made safety Daimion Stafford miss in the open field and broke it 56 yards for a touchdown.
Then, on NU's first offensive play, Martinez was picked off on a tipped pass by Badger cornerback Marcus Cromartie and returned 29 yards for a score to make it 14-0 with barely two minutes off the game clock.
On Nebraska's next drive, two straight penalties on third down put the Huskers at a third-and-11 at their own 24-yard line. After a defender got through essentially untouched, Martinez eluded the rush, rolled back right and then rolled back left all the way to the NU 6, and he was somehow able to make his way up field and past the Wisconsin defense past the first-down marker.
But he wasn't done there. Martinez weaved his way 76 yards on the scramble for a highlight reel touchdown that brought the Huskers right back in the game.
The defense then came up with its first three-and-out stand of the night, and senior Brett Maher nailed a 32-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10 with 4:46 left in the first quarter.
Wisconsin was able to quiet the momentum back down on its ensuing possession, though. With runs of 21 and 24 yards by Montee Ball and Gordon, respectively, to open the drive, the Badgers moved their way into a first-and-goal and scored on a 9-yard touchdown run by running back James White to take a 21-10 lead into the second quarter.
It would only get worse from there, as Wisconsin used a bit a trickery with a reverse pass from receiver Jared Abbrederis to quarterback Curt Phillips down to the 1-yard line. White took the snap and punched in his second TD of the day from there, giving the Badgers a 28-10 lead with 11 minutes still remaining in the half.
Ball broke away down the left side and dove over the pylon for a 16-yard touchdown on UW's next drive to bump the lead up to 35-10, and the blows just kept on coming for the Huskers.
Wisconsin failed to capitalize on a Martinez fumbled at midfield on the very next drive, with a missed a 45-yard field goal, but punched it in one last time before halftime on a 3-yard halfback pass from White to tight end Sam Arneson with just two seconds left on the clock.
The Badgers had racked up 391 yards of offense with 290 coming on the ground at 10.7 yards per carry by the end of the first half, including Gordon (152) and Ball (111) both rushing for 100-plus yards. The 42 points by Wisconsin were most given up by a Pelini defense in a first half since allowed 49 to Oklahoma back in 2008.
"What is playing defensive football?" Pelini said. "It's play your gaps, handle your responsibility, be where you're supposed to be and make tackles. We did none of the above. You have to have 11 guys on the same page doing the right things. It wasn't much different to a large extent than what happened at Ohio State."
The woes carried right on over to the second half, too. Martinez was picked off three plays into Nebraska's first drive by Devin Smith, and Ball walked into the end zone on Wisconsin's first play to bump it up to 49-10.
Nebraska finally got back on the board on its next possession despite having a touchdown pass to Jamal Turner called back by a terrible personal foul on Kenny Bell, who threw a perfectly legal block. The Huskers got their drive extended with a personal foul call on Wisconsin on third down, and Martinez ran in to make it 49-17.
Any momentum gained from that score went out the window on the very next series, however, as Ball broke a 57-yard touchdown run capped by a vicious stiff arm on Ciante Evans to put back up to a dominating 56-17 with 9:27 left in the third.
White then reeled off a 68-yard touchdown run on Wisconsin's next possession, making him the third back to break the 100-yard rushing mark on the night. Ball finished with 203 and three touchdowns on 21 carries, Gordon had 216 yards a score on just nine carries, and White rushed 15 times for 104 and four TDs.
The eight rushing touchdowns were a school record for the Badgers.
"We didn't execute. Bottom line," senior safety P.J. Smith said. "It's about execution. We didn't tackle. Every time they ran in for a big play, two guys hit him and they jut broke the tackle and went for six. No execution, no tackling, no communication… It's hard to explain, man."
Sophomore running back Braylon Heard ran it in from nine yards out and freshman Imani Cross scored on a 26-yard run in the final minutes to cut the lead to 70-31 with 12:14 left in the game, but it was hardly much for the few remaining Husker fans to cheer about.
With the loss, Nebraska missed out on a chance to claim their first conference title since 1999 and to go to the Rose Bowl for its first BCS bowl game since 2001. Instead, the Huskers will be left spending the offseason thinking about what could have been.
"We failed," Peini said. "We failed to win a championship. That was the goal coming in, and we didn't get it done. I apologize for it. I apologize to the football team, I apologize to the coaches, the fans, like I said, everybody associated with it, because at the end of the day, it falls on me. I'm the one responsible for it, and we didn't get it done."