Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema understands a lot of people believe his Badgers don’t deserve to be playing in the Big Ten championship game.
Asked if he’s insulted by the sentiment, he says he’s not.
“I appreciate the question and understand it totally,” he said Sunday. “I think there are 10 teams out there in the Big Ten that would love to be in the position Nebraska and we’re in right now. “When the two teams take the field on Saturday, neither is going to care how the other team got there or what their record is.”
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible because of NCAA sanctions, the Badgers will represent the Leaders Division against Legends champion Nebraska this Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The winner goes to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA or Stanford.
The Badgers (4-4, 7-5), the two-time defending Big Ten champions, finished third in their division behind Ohio State and Penn State after losing three of their last four games in overtime.
The 14th-ranked Cornhuskers (7-1, 10-2) have won six straight since a 25-point loss at Ohio State Oct. 6. They won their division outright when Michigan lost to the Buckeyes and will be playing for their first conference championship since winning the Big 12 in 1999.
Nebraska opened Big Ten play Sept. 29 with a 30-27 win over the Badgers, coming back from a 17-point, third-quarter deficit.
Pelini told Bielema after that game that he thought they might meet again in Indianapolis.
“Here we are,” Pelini said.
Wisconsin won last year’s inaugural Big Ten championship game 42-39 over Michigan State. The Badgers are looking for their 14th Big Ten title and a third straight league title for the first time in school history.
Nebraska has won 43 conference titles and is looking for its first Big Ten championship in its second year in the league.
The Badgers were 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the league after beating Minnesota in mid-October. An overtime loss to Michigan State, a win over Indiana and OT losses to Ohio State and Penn State ended the regular season.
Bielema said he’s received supportive correspondence from people around the Big Ten since the Badgers clinched a spot in the title game.
“We’ve been on the short stick of some close, hard-fought games,” he said. “The optimist in me looks at it and says, ‘Hey, we were in these games.’ We lost to Ohio State and Penn State, who are ineligible to play in the game. One play here or there, we could we win them. We didn’t. I get it. ... It’s not going to diminish what we’ve accomplished.”
Pelini said he doesn’t buy that some of the luster is off the Big Ten championship game because unbeaten Ohio State, which finished first in the Leaders, won’t be there.
“I don’t really care what people say about that,” he said. “Wisconsin is there because they deserve to be there. (Ohio State’s) not there for a reason. That’s not taking anything away from Urban Meyer or the kids who played at Ohio State and played their tails off, but there’s a reason they’re not there.”
Wisconsin is in the same position it was in a year ago, playing an opponent in the championship game that had beaten the Badgers in the regular season. Last year, Michigan State handed the Badgers their first loss of the season, 37-31.
Montee Ball scored four touchdowns, the last coming on a 7-yard run with 3:45 left, and the Badgers used a running into the kicker penalty to kill the clock to win the championship game. Russell Wilson, who threw for three touchdowns, was the game’s MVP.
Wilson has gone to the NFL, leaving the Badgers to play three quarterbacks this season.
Joel Stave, who replaced Danny O’Brien, made his first road start against Nebraska and turned in a strong first-half performance before O’Brien replaced him late in the game. Curt Phillips has started the last three games.
The Badgers still have Ball, the 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist who went over 1,500 yards rushing and became the NCAA career touchdown leader in the loss to Penn State. Ball ran for 90 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries against Nebraska but was held to 31 yards on 15 runs in the second half.
“We lost a heartbreaker to Nebraska on the road,” Bielema said. “We played well in that game and did some things not so well. I know they’re a better team than we saw. I know we’re a better team, too. It’s going to be fun for us.”
Nebraska is coming off a 13-7 win over Iowa, a game that marked the return of running back Rex Burkhead. The senior, who had been out with a left knee sprain, ran 16 times for 69 yards in his first action since Oct. 20 at Northwestern. In the fourth quarter alone, Burkhead carried the ball 10 times for 57 yards.
Burkhead had 86 yards in the first game against Wisconsin. The Huskers’ playmaker that night was Taylor Martinez, who threw for 181 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 107 and a score.
Pelini said what happened in the first meeting won’t have any impact in the second.
“The challenges will be the same,” he said.