Rose stage a fitting end to Wilson's saga

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
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WilsonAP Photo/Andy ManisAfter transferring from NC State in the summer, Russell Wilson quickly became a leader at Wisconsin.
LOS ANGELES -- When Wisconsin landed in Southern California last week, the team went straight to Rose Bowl Stadium. The view was very familiar for most of the Badgers after playing in last year's game against TCU.

For Russell Wilson, however, the sight was something new. Though one of his strengths as a quarterback is his ability to keep an even keel at all times, Wilson couldn't help but muse about his interesting path to Pasadena.

"He told me, 'Coach, a year ago I was in an NC State locker room, then a professional baseball locker room and now a Rose Bowl locker room,'" head coach Bret Bielema recalled.

Around this time last year, Wilson was leading NC State to a win over West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl. Wisconsin wasn't even on his radar. The story from there is well known, as Wilson played minor league baseball in the offseason, was given an ultimatum by Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien and eventually used the NCAA's graduate transfer rule to wind up with the Badgers.

Now, the Richmond, Va., native ends the saga on one of college football's grandest postseason stages.

"When I grew up on the East Coast, my dad always would say, 'It would be special if you would play in the Rose Bowl,'" Wilson said. "And in the back of my mind I thought, 'Yeah, it would be awesome. But there's no chance of me playing in it.' It's amazing how things come full circle."

Wilson's greatness is all but taken for granted now. He completed 72.5 percent of his passes for 2,879 yards, with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions this season. He has a chance to set the single-season NCAA record for passer efficiency rating with a solid game against Oregon on Monday. Wilson leads the nation with a 191.6 rating, just ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III's 189.5 mark. Hawaii's Colt Brennan held the record going into this season with a 186.0 rating in 2006.

But such success was hardly guaranteed coming into the season. Wilson didn't arrive in Madison until the summer, and there were major questions about how quickly he could learn a new system and adapt to all new teammates at a position that demands leadership.

"You're learning a foreign language, and he learned it," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "I think he understood everything when we started camp, and I think camp gave him a chance to make it become more second nature. And that only happens by working at it and being exceptionally bright to be able to grasp all that."

Wilson said he expected to understand the playbook quickly. His biggest challenge was trying to remember all the new teammates he'd met.

"I'm not very good with names," he said.

That appears to be one of his few weaknesses. Wilson set records at NC State despite having a poor supporting cast on offense. He flourished with the help of the Badgers' standout offensive line and high-powered rushing game led by Montee Ball.

Wisconsin's play-action passing game presents a nightmare for defensive coordinators as they have to respect the run but somehow not give up passing or scrambling lanes to Wilson. He might stand only about 5-foot-11, but Wilson can do just about everything athletically you'd want in a quarterback.

"He shows great poise under pressure," Oregon defensive back Eddie Pleasant said. "He makes a lot of good plays on the run when he has pressure in his face.

"I was impressed to see how short he is. Watching him on film, he flings the ball 50 yards on the run. To see him in person, wow. I can't believe he throws the ball like that."

Physical gifts are only part of Wilson's story, though.

Bielema couldn't have known what kind of leader he was getting when Wilson transferred. It spoke volumes when teammates voted him a captain in the preseason after only a few weeks with the program. Wilson justified that by helping keep things together after the heart-wrenching back-to-back losses this season to Michigan State and Ohio State. If not for the two last-minute, game-winning passes by the Spartans and Buckeyes, those games might have been remembered for how Wilson rallied the team back from deficits in the fourth quarter.

"I think Russell Wilson is best when people around him are at their worst," Bielema said. "He really does make great players play well in difficult situations."

That trait might prove invaluable on Monday. There are few more pressure-packed venues than the Rose Bowl, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if the Badgers have to fight through adversity with the way Oregon can score quickly. Wilson doesn't have a lot of postseason experience; his only other bowl game besides last year's Champs Sports was a 2008 PapaJohns.com Bowl loss to Rutgers in which he got injured early.

But he did come through in the Big Ten title game, and those around him say he embraces the spotlight moments.

"I expect nothing less than absolute poise and professionalism from him," left tackle Josh Oglesby said. "He just exudes confidence in the huddle. This is his opportunity to play on a big stage for the first time, and I think he's going to thrive off it."

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