BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Starting the first game of his career under center for Wisconsin, Curt Phillips didn’t have to make the plays with his arm Saturday afternoon to lead his team to victory.
Instead, all the redshirt senior needed to do was turn around and hand the ball off to his stellar running back core, as Wisconsin’s (7-3, 4-2) run game amassed a school record 564 rushing yards in a 62-14 thrashing of Indiana (4-6, 2-4).
It was the third time in school history the Badgers gained 500 yards or more rushing, an effort that solidified the team's spot for a second consecutive year to the Big Ten Championship game.
"[The offensive line] had set a goal that we wanted to rush for 400 yards," redshirt junior center Travis Frederick said. "So we knew it was definitely obtainable. We knew that their defensive tackles were the strength of their team and if we could go out and neutralize those guys, get the running backs to the second and third level we were going to have a good game."
Senior star tailback Montee Ball racked up 198 rushing yards on the ground and three touchdowns—putting him two away from breaking the all-time NCAA mark for career scores and surpassing Ricky Williams of Texas for sole possession of second place—while junior James White added 161 yards of his own, including two 50-plus yard scoring runs.
Redshirt freshmen Melvin Gordon and Jeff Lewis even got in on the action, each scoring a touchdown while Gordon gained 96 yards of his own.
"This game meant a lot, us running backs, we love it," Ball said. "The offensive line did their job and we didn’t want to let them down…we made the right reads and finished plays."
Indiana kept the game competitive through almost the entire first half, narrowing the lead to 17-7 with 2:25 left in the second quarter thanks to six-yard pass from Cameron Coffman to tightend Ted Bolser.
But in a game where Wisconsin’s offensive line mauled the Big Ten’s worst defense from start to finish, it only took one play to solidify that Indiana's comeback hopes were all but a mirage.
While it looked like the Badgers were content to run as much time off the clock and walk into halftime with a 10-point lead, White took a handoff on a 3rd and 16 from the shotgun and bounced off a tackle to the left side on a stretch play, finding the edge and breaking to the middle of the field for a 69-yard touchdown run.
The play also saw Phillips serve as lead blocker over 20-yards down field.
"He said he didn’t know where I was going and he didn’t really know what to do," White said laughing. "He was going to make a block but I was able to get through it."
The score put UW up 24-7 at the end of the half and deflated any notions of an IU comeback, scoring another 17 in the third quarter to put the game out of reach for good.
"James provided the spark again at the end of the half," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "Before the half that was a huge momentum swing and kind of a dagger."
While Phillips didn’t have eye-popping numbers on the day—throwing the ball just seven times—he was effective, throwing for a touchdown on one of his four completions.
"The plan was to not put a lot on Curt, and obviously that worked very, very well," Bielema said. "Curt is very good at certain throws and we got into a situation in the second half where I said ‘we don’t really need to throw it, just keep running it’…I thought Curt did a nice job all day with the clock and with managing the situation and everything involved."
Phillips also displayed his prowess on the ground. Adding a dimension to the running game that no starting quarterback for Wisconsin has displayed this season, Phillips rushed the ball on several designed draw plays for 68 yards, including a 52-yard scamper that almost resulted in a touchdown.
The win capped off a feel-good week for Phillips. Once a top-rated prospect entering UW, Phillips career had been largely derailed by multiple ACL injuries. Starting the year at No. 3 on the depth chart and having not played a single snap since 2009, Phillips took the starting job after beating Danny O’Brien for the starting job during the Badgers’ bye week in wake of starter Joel Stave's season-ending injury.
And in front of his family members and his high school coaches, Phillips delivered a memorable first start.
"I kind of felt like a little kid on Christmas," Phillips said. "This morning getting up, not nervous just excited to get out here."
Taking a side to their offense’s historic performance, Wisconsin’s defense held the conference’s best passing offense (299.9 per game) and third best scoring offense (33.1 per game) to 233 yards through the air and just 14 points.
After the win, Bielema was proud of his squad’s response to a rocky loss and losing their starting quarterback just two weeks earlier, earning the team shot for the program’s third consecutive Rose Bowl.
"Give a lot of credit to our guys perseverance," Bielema said. "Because a lot of times people will let go of the rope in this situation or back away from the things that are in front of them, but our guys just charge ahead at full speed."
–Of Note: Wisconsin averaged 8.8 yards per carry on its 64 rushing attempts Saturday. The school record for average yards per carry in a game is 8.91 vs. Hawaii on Nov. 30, 1996. UW’s 62 points was its highest scoring output of the season. In its last eight games against Indiana, Wisconsin has run for an average of 320 yards per game. Wisconsin has now won its last five games with a first-time starting quarterback, including all three games this season. Ball finished the game with 198 yards and three touchdowns, his 22nd career 100-yard rushing game and 24th career multiple-touchdown game (NCAA record is 25 by Travis Prentice)…Ball now has 1,236 yards and 16 touchdowns on the season. Ball ran for at least 100 yards in each of his four career games against Indiana. He is just the third player in the Big Ten since 1996 to run for at least 100 yards against the same team four times in his career. (Stats and notables courtesy of uwbadgers.com)