- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Looking back at Wisconsin's 2011 season, it's still hard to believe that the Badgers managed to lose three games.
They had another record-setting offensive season, led by the Big Ten's best offensive backfield combination (RB Montee Ball and QB Russell Wilson) in recent history. They had a strong offensive line, two good receivers and a tight end (Jacob Pederson) who caught eight touchdowns. They had a terrific linebacker tandem in the Home Improvement duo (Taylor and Borland).
Wisconsin was a team that could have run the table and faced LSU on Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Why did the Badgers fall short?
Most would point to their secondary, which had two high-profile miscues against Michigan State and Ohio State, and struggled to keep pace with the speedy skill players from both Michigan State and Oregon.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema narrowed it down even more in a revealing interview Wednesday with ESPN Radio Madison (FM 100.5).
Bielema told the station that a season-ending foot injury to starting cornerback Devin Smith in Week 2 dealt a significant blow to the Badgers' secondary -- and, as it turned out, possibly the team's national title hopes.
"Devin was playing as good of football as we'd ever seen. For us here at Wisconsin, for us to have one of those special, special, maybe national championship-type seasons, you have to stay healthy," Bielema said.
"I honestly think if Devin Smith had played the entire year at the way he was playing at the time he got hurt, we probably never would have lost ... those plays that hit, they were going after his backup, Marcus Cromartie. 'Cro' did a nice job, did a lot of good things, but you potentially have the difference between maybe a Big Ten championship vs. a national championship opportunity based on one guy's injury."
Bielema rarely has been one to hold back in interviews, which we media types love, and his sentiments about Smith's value are clearly expressed here. Smith started every game in 2009 and led the team with 11 passes defended, but he had a more reduced role in 2010, starting only one game. The coaches had high hopes for him entering 2011, but he went down with the injury against Oregon State. Coincidentally, one of the big pass plays to go against the Badgers -- Ohio State's game-winning 40-yard touchdown strike with 20 seconds left -- was caught by a wide receiver named ... Devin Smith.
While Bielema's comments should boost Smith's confidence as he returns from the foot injury, it's fair to ask whether the coach is throwing Cromartie under the bus a little. Although Bielema praises Cromartie for "doing a lot of good things," he spells it out clearly that opponents went after the backup, which ultimately could have been the difference between an 11-2 regular season and a 13-0 spotless campaign.
Cromartie, by the way, is expected to start opposite Smith this season at cornerback for the Badgers.