Sunday, October 17, 2010
Belief helps Badgers finally win the big one
By Adam Rittenberg
MADISON, Wis. -- Jay Valai had won a lot of games and delivered a lot of bone-crushing hits in his Wisconsin career.
But he'd never experienced this: swarms of students descending on the field at Camp Randall Stadium after a signature win, grabbing players "in bad spots," as he'd later say.
Valai, who follows college football as closely as any other player in the country, felt like he'd been missing out.
"Every year, like a wrestling match, we look like we're about to win," the Wisconsin senior safety said. "It's like, '1-2,' and then they knock us out."
John Clay and the Badgers celebrated an upset of No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday. Clay rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
The Badgers pinned No. 1 Ohio State to the mat, but they weren't exactly prepared for what came next. After Blake Sorensen's interception sealed a 31-18 win, head coach Bret Bielema removed his headset, having no need to signal in a kneel-down.
That's when director of football operations Mark Taurisani approached him.
"He said, 'If they rush the field, go out the far tunnel,'" Bielema recalled. "I'm like, 'Well, you better tell everybody else the same thing.'
"We hadn't exactly gone through an evacuation plan."
Wisconsin didn't have a need for one before Saturday night. These were the games the Badgers had lost for the past decade, the ones separating a very good program from once again reaching elite status.
Wisconsin hadn't defeated a No. 1 team since 1981 (Michigan), but the more significant burden fell on Bielema, who had yet to beat Ohio State in his career and boasted a record that looked stylish (43-15) but lacked substance (1-8 vs. ranked Big Ten opponents). The Badgers' first meeting with a ranked team this fall -- a Week 5 trip to Michigan State -- ended like so many others in recent memory, with a lackluster performance and a loss.
"We always hear we can't beat the big-name teams," Valai said. "The only ranked team we've beat the last couple years has been Miami. We came out with the mentality of us vs. the world."
Wisconsin players didn't let their past failures impact their preparation for Saturday.
They knew of Ohio State's No. 1 ranking -- Bielema mentioned it in the team meeting last Sunday -- but they didn't dwell on what it meant. They sensed the buildup to the game in a town that feeds on hype and excitement, but they didn't get drunk with anticipation.
"That is the challenge," said defensive end J.J. Watt, who twice sacked Terrelle Pryor and recorded three tackles for loss. "We had the No. 1 team in the country coming in here, and it's easy to get excited. You've got 'College GameDay' and everything around, but when you can go in there calm and collected and do your job, great things will happen.
"And obviously, tonight, great things happened."
To prepare for the Buckeyes, the Badgers focused on themselves and their bedrock values, the same values that propelled them from good to great under Barry Alvarez in the 1990s.
We're talking about controlling the line of scrimmage, the power run game, offensive efficiency, limiting big plays and major mistakes. Standard stuff for Wisconsin football.
The Badgers delivered early, slicing through the heart of Ohio State's defense on their first possession. And the Badgers delivered late, marching 73 yards on 10 plays in a game-defining touchdown drive after Ohio State had rallied to within three points.
"It's justification for me that we are doing the right thing," Bielema said. "What we do 365 days a year, you saw today, and I know it could be successful. As we build our program with recruiting and the constant belief about what we're all about, it solidifies it that much more."
Wisconsin won the game the Wisconsin way, which hasn't shown up enough in the national spotlight. During the week, Bielema challenged his offensive line, which had been billed as one of the nation's best before the season but hadn't performed like it.
More motivation arrived Friday when running back John Clay showed up with a new haircut: he had the jersey numbers of each of the starting linemen shaved into his head.
"I knew this was going to be a big game for us," Clay said, "so I told them when this game comes around, I'm going to do something special."
The linemen were the ones who did something special, completely dominating Cameron Heyward and the Ohio State defensive front. Wisconsin racked up 184 rushing yards and three rush touchdowns; the Buckeyes had allowed three rushing touchdowns all season before Saturday night.
The line also prevented a sack or a quarterback hurry, and Scott Tolzien delivered, completing 13 of 16 passes, six to junior wideout Nick Toon.
"There was just a feeling this week," senior guard John Moffitt said, "and I even felt it today: I was nervous, but I was also very settled. I just felt right about things. That comes from doing the right things and preparing the right way.
"That's how you win games."
By rededicating themselves to what put their program on the map, the Badgers won a very big game.
"Everybody has things they believe in," Bielema said. "When you say them over and over, and when kids finally see the results of that, that's when you can gain ground."