Going in, the spotlight is on Nebraska playing its first Big Ten game, and that’s as it should be, especially in Madison. Campus police reported 20 arrests, 24 citations and 29 ejections for last week’s routine 59-10 demolition of the South Dakota Coyotes.
When the No. 7 Badgers take on the No. 8 Cornhuskers in well-lubricated Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday night, the atmosphere will be anything but routine.
Anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 Cornhuskers fans are expected to be in Mad City, many of them scrambling for tickets that are being scalped for more than $500.
When we look back, though, the Big Ten debut of a first-year Badger also might end up having lasting implications.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, who dropped out of the sky and into Camp Randall Stadium, already has had a splashy debut. The senior transfer from North Carolina State leads the Big Ten in passing yards (284 per game) and total offense (311) and is second in the nation in passing efficiency with 11 touchdown passes and one interception. And he’s averaging 6.8 yards on 16 timely rushes.
After starring for the Wolfpack – he passed for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns the last three years –Wilson took advantage of an NCAA rule that allows players who have earned their degrees to transfer without sitting out. A fourth-round pick by the Colorado Rockies in 2010, Wilson left N.C. State, which wanted him to participate in off-season workouts rather than play minor-league baseball.
Asked this week what’s in his future, football or baseball, Wilson didn’t hesitate.
‘‘Right now, Nebraska is,” Wilson said. ‘‘That’s the only thing that really matters right now. I’m just focusing on that and just taking one day at a time, like I always try to do.”
Before he has to make that decision, Wilson certainly has brightened the Badgers’ future. By stepping in for the departed Scott Tolzien, Wilson is positioned for a run at the Heisman Trophy. And Wisconsin could enter the national-championship hunt.
When he arrived in June, there were concerns the 5-11, 201-pound Richmond, Va., native wouldn’t fit into the buttoned-down tradition of the Wisconsin quarterback, best known for staying away from mistakes while handing off the ball. That has not been the case.
‘‘He knows the plan,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said after Wilson had powered the Badgers past Northern Illinois 49-7 in Soldier Field on Sept. 17. ‘‘He knows how to stick to it. But he can adapt very well. Very creative. If there’s somebody that’s better out there right now, I’d like to see him because he’s an exceptional football player.”
Although Wilson’s situation is rare, it’s not unique. Greg Paulus, a standout point guard at Duke, took advantage of the NCAA graduation loophole to play quarterback for Syracuse in 2009. There are also similarities to Chris Weinke, who played minor-league baseball for six years before playing quarterback at Florida State, where he won the 2000 Heisman Trophy.
One thing that has helped Wilson, who plans to marry his high school sweetheart in January, fit in at Wisconsin so seamlessly is that for all his razzle-dazzle skills, he has kept his feet on the ground metaphorically.
‘‘One area that’s surprised me is how well he handles all that’s going on around him,” Bielema said. ‘‘People are starting to talk Heisman, people are trying to anoint him king, and all he does is keep giving credit to his players, his coaches, his offensive line, his daily preparation. And it’s not false, either.”
Wilson is well on his way to convincing skeptics who doubted he could harness his considerable freelancing skills into the Badgers’ run-oriented offense. And he is appreciative of his situation.
‘‘I’m blessed to be a Badger,” he said. ‘‘It’s an awesome opportunity. My job is to facilitate the ball to the right guy at the right time, and that’s my goal, every single practice and every single game.”
With a pair of stud runners, Montee Ball (90 yards a game, nine TDs) and James White (75.8, three TDs), and quality receivers Nick Toon and Jar Abbrederis around him, Wilson and the offense look imposing.
If the Badgers’ defense can hold up its end of the deal, not only are expectations of a Wisconsin-Nebraska rematch in the first Big Ten title game very real. The Badgers also could find themselves in national-championship discussions.
In other words, Wilson has been making all the right moves.