Saturday, November 20, 2010
Wisconsin Badgers in right state of mind
By Adam Rittenberg
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The state of Michigan hasn't been kind to Wisconsin.
Michigan soil might as well be quicksand for the Badgers.
Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien completed 14 of 15 for 201 yards against Michigan.
Wisconsin entered Saturday's game not having won in the state since 2002. The seventh-ranked Badgers had dropped five straight contests at Michigan Stadium -- their last victory coming in 1994 -- and 17 of their past 18 at the Big House.
But the failures of the past haven't gone for naught. They are part of Wisconsin's history, coach Bret Bielema says, just like all the triumphs during the program's renaissance since 1993.
After Wisconsin ended its Michigan misfortune with a 48-28 victory Saturday, Bielema said of his players: "They taste it, they believe it."
Asked when that process began, Bielema didn't hesitate.
"Michigan State," the coach said.
Really? The Badgers' only loss of the season? The game where they couldn't capitalize on Spartans turnovers or stop Michigan State in clutch situations? The road loss that had looked like so many others under Bielema?
"Maybe going into that game, I don't know if every kid in that room believed how special this team could be," Bielema said. "But I know leaving that locker room, they knew they could be."
Bielema isn't the only one who feels this way. Senior guard John Moffitt has brought up the Michigan State loss in conversations with his dad.
"You want to look at it and you want to say, 'You know something? Without that loss, maybe we wouldn't have been jump-started the way that we have been, and we wouldn't have respected the game as much as we do now,'" Moffitt said. "And even more so, we took it upon ourselves to turn it around."
Boy, have they ever.
Wisconsin is the hottest team in the Big Ten and one of the hottest in the country. The Badgers on Saturday extended their win streak to six games with a performance that encapsulated their identity: past, present and future.
Never was this more the case than early in the third quarter.
The normally disciplined Badgers committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and watched their 24-0 lead trimmed to 24-14. The last time Wisconsin visited Ann Arbor, in 2008, it blew a 19-0 lead as Michigan mounted the biggest comeback in stadium history, one from which the Badgers never truly recovered. And unlike in 2008, Michigan boasts a quick-strike offense and the Big Ten's most exciting player in quarterback Denard Robinson.
So how did the Badgers respond to their predicament?
They ran the ball. Then they ran it again. And again. And again.
Wisconsin called 28 consecutive running plays. Add in a Scott Tolzien scramble on the front end and two kneel-downs on the back end, and that's 31 straight rushes.
"We were setting 'em up for play-action," Bielema joked.
Although offensive coordinator Paul Chryst calls the plays, Bielema delivered a message to his top assistant in the third quarter: "They can't stop your run game, point blank. There wasn't anything they could do to slow that down."
Montee Ball rushed for 173 yards and four of Wisconsin's six touchdowns on the ground.
A ferocious offensive line and running backs Montee Ball and James White were the primary reasons why. As 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the year John Clay (sprained knee) watched from the sideline, Ball and White combined for 354 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 52 carries.
White (189 rush yards) and Ball (173 rush yards) became the first Badgers' tandem to both eclipse 150 rush yards in a game since Billy Marek and Ken Starch in 1973, and just the second tandem to do so in team history.
"In practice, we have this inside drill, where we just run the ball, run the ball," Ball said. "That's what it felt like today. ... We just imposed our will on them."
The backs and the offensive line get most of the praise, and rightfully so, but Wisconsin received contributions from other areas.
J.J. Watt continued to show why he's the Big Ten's top playmaking defender, tipping a Robinson pass and coming down with his first interception this season to stem Michigan's momentum early in the fourth quarter .
When Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, leery of his team's defensive woes, tried an onside kick late in the third quarter, Wisconsin's Bradie Ewing was there for the recovery.
Tolzien opened the game with 13 consecutive completions -- 24 if you count the end of last week's game -- and finished the game 14 of 15 for 201 yards.
"Scotty will do anything to win," Bielema said. "That's said for everybody on this football team."
Although Wisconsin's identity had been in place long before any of the current players arrived, Bielema has seen this team buy in more and more with each game.
"We're not the spread, we're not sexy, it's not on the front of everybody's wish list," Bielema said, "but I tell you, 48 points is fun."
The Badgers finally had some fun in the state of Michigan, and the moment wasn't lost on the players or coaches. Before heading down the tunnel, Badgers senior safety Jay Valai told several teammates, "Look around one last time. Take this in."
In the postgame interview area, former Wisconsin coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez greeted Bielema with a bear hug, telling his protégé, "That was sweet, man."
It'll be even sweeter if Wisconsin beats Northwestern next week to secure a possible trip to the Rose Bowl.
"We only get one more chance with these guys," Bielema said, choking up a bit. "They're a special group. They compete. They believe in something bigger than just themselves."