Montee Ball, Badgers football at Nebraska

Wisconsin Badgers running back Montee Ball (28) is stopped on a 3rd and 1 for a loss of two yards resulting in fourth down in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday evening, Sept. 29, 2012. M.P. King-State Journal

M.P. King -- Wisconsin State Journal

LINCOLN, Neb. — Instead of the Big Ten Conference opener, they should have called Saturday night’s game between Nebraska and the University of Wisconsin the adidas Bowl.

That’s because the athletic apparel giant, attempting to showcase two of its signature college football programs, dressed the Badgers and Cornhuskers in old-school fashion for their nationally televised showdown under the lights at Memorial Stadium.

Actually, the uniforms were an odd mix of 50-year-old lettering with ultramodern fabric and design. Some thought they were cool, some thought they were hideous, most didn’t give it a thought after the opening kickoff.

Instead, people soon learned no matter how you dress up UW and Nebraska, they’re still the same old teams underneath.

Both entered the conference opener with 3-1 records, though they took divergent paths to get there. The Badgers were all defense and the Cornhuskers were all offense through the first four games.

That qualified it as a major surprise when UW twice rolled up 17-point leads. However, the teams reverted to form in the second half, resulting in a 30-27 victory for Nebraska and a long trip home for a UW team that simply couldn’t hide its weaknesses, even under those shiny new threads.

UW still could be a player in the Big Ten race, but only because it resides in the weak and (for postseason purposes) short-handed Leaders Division. Those nagging questions at quarterback, kicker and offensive line haven’t gone away.

Nebraska, which hopes to make its mark after finding tougher-than-expected going in its first year in the Big Ten, considered the victory a sign that it has arrived. Fact is, Nebraska is a one-dimensional team that beat another one-dimensional team in a league loaded with one-dimensional teams.

UW and Nebraska went into the game thinking they were dressed for success, but it turned out they had been outfitted inappropriately, especially in the first half.

Indeed, the Cornhuskers should have been dressed in clown suits at the outset. After building up the game as an opportunity for revenge on UW and redemption in their second go-around in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers fell right on their new black facemasks at the start.

A fumbled snap by quarterback Taylor Martinez derailed the first drive and a fumble by tailback Rex Burkhead stopped the second. A later first-half drive ended with a missed field goal. Still another Martinez fumble handed UW a touchdown and a 27-10 lead early in the second half.

It wasn’t quite as bad as last year, when the teams met in Nebraska’s first-ever Big Ten game and Martinez’s three interceptions allowed UW to blow open a close game. Still, it looked like Nebraska’s attempts to hype the game had backfired, resulting in a team that was extraordinarily tight.

Meanwhile, UW came out looking nothing like the team that had bumbled through its non-conference season on offense. In the first half, those weren’t 1962 uniforms the Badgers were wearing, they were from 2011. With tailback Montee Ball scoring touchdowns and quarterback Joel Stave completing play-action passes, UW bore an uncanny resemblance to last year’s high-scoring team.

The Badgers took a 20-3 lead before a late Nebraska drive cut it to 20-10 at the half. Ominously, UW left some points — four, to be exact — on the field due to a kicking game that continues to flounder.

But while the first half left many wondering who the imposters in those uniforms were, the true nature of the teams was exposed in the second half.

Like UW’s non-conference opponents, the Cornhuskers stacked the box and dared the Badgers to run. Ball was shut down. And when Stave, making his second college start, started playing like the inexperienced quarterback he is, UW’s offense evaporated.

The situation got crazy at the end when coach Bret Bielema summoned former starter Danny O’Brien from the bullpen, sitting Stave so O’Brien could run the 2-minute offense. Not surprisingly, that curious move led to trouble as a miscommunication between O’Brien and Ball led to a fumbled handoff that ended UW’s hopes.

Meanwhile, Nebraska finally found its groove in the second half. The Cornhuskers won because they ran the ball effectively on UW and stopped the Badgers’ running game cold.

Despite losing yet another close game to a Big Ten contender on the road, a recurring theme under Bielema, the Badgers’ season isn’t over. But even those unsightly uniforms couldn’t hide the fact UW is a flawed team.

In the end, adidas got its money’s worth with an exciting game, Nebraska got a possible program-defining victory and UW still looks uncomfortable no matter what it’s wearing.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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