Big Ten: Jay Valai

MADISON, Wis. -- Just thinking about all the talent Wisconsin has lost in the past two years can be a little daunting.

The Badgers saw four first- or second-team All-Americans leave after the 2010 season (Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Lance Kendricks and J.J. Watt) and two more depart after last season (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler), along with their NCAA record-breaking transfer quarterback (Russell Wilson). Many programs would expect a dip after having so much star power leave town, but Bret Bielema is feeling fine.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Gross/Getty Images"Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus ... " Bielema said.
"I used to freak out when we lost players, too," Bielema said. "But we do a good job of just developing. We always talk about being a developmental program, and I think it truly is that type of program now."

Wisconsin's ability to keep reloading will be put to the test in 2012. The team returns just 11 starters from last year's Big Ten champions, and six assistant coaches -- including almost all of the offensive brain trust -- left for other jobs in the offseason. Yet many still predict the Badgers will repeat as Leaders Division champs.

They will need new starters to emerge at receiver, on the right side of the offensive line, on the defensive line, in the secondary and of course at quarterback, where Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien could plug the hole. But O'Brien is the exception, as Wisconsin usually just brings along the next man on the depth chart.

"There are All-Americans sitting behind All-Americans, especially at spots like offensive line and running back," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Like last year, having lost Moffitt and Carimi, and then our line was arguably better. I think it speaks more to the development than it does to the players."

Madison might well be the world's leading producer of offensive linemen, and the running back tradition is just as strong. But other positions are becoming known for their string of successes as well, including tight end and safety. In each of the past two years, Wisconsin has lost an all-conference safety -- Jay Valai in 2010 and Aaron Henry in 2011. But Bielema says this year's pair of starters, Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, might be his best duo yet.

"A guy might not be good enough to play right away, but a lot of times he'll develop for a year and come on the scene when a guy leaves or gets injured," said Jared Abbrederis, who's gone from former walk-on to one of the league's best wideouts. "That's kind of how it goes around here."

What's most impressive about the Badgers' recent run is that they've done it without many high-profile recruits. Bielema mostly signs three-star types and rarely brings in the true blue-chipper that gets scouting services drooling. Even though the program's exposure has increased of late, he still has little interest in trying to recruit much outside of a few key areas.

"We do what we can with what we've got," Bielema said. "I don't think we want more national recruits. A lot of times, those guys come with some issues you don't want to deal with. I take a lot of pride with the way our guys go about their business and handle themselves."

Player development is going to be key for Wisconsin's immediate future, because a cavalry of help isn't coming. The team signed only 12 players in February and expects to bring in an even smaller class next year. The reason? So few players have left before their eligibility ended.

"A lot of places sign 24 or 25 kids every year, so something is happening to those kids," Bielema said. "Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus, which is an unheard of number."

Last year's Rose Bowl team had only 24 juniors and seniors, and the rest were underclassmen. If those youngsters develop the way their predecessors have, then the Badgers will have a deep and experienced team soon. In fact, when O'Brien -- who has two years of eligibility remaining -- came on his visit, Bielema told him, "I think we'll be really good this year. But next year, on paper, might be the best team I've ever had."

That's a big statement, given how much talent -- both players and coaches -- has exited Madison in the past two years. But Wisconsin is confident in its ability to reload from within.

"We realize we're a developmental program," athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "We don't have the access to a lot of five-star guys. We might have a Joe Thomas coming out of the state or get a Ron Dayne because of his ties to the area. But for the most part, we develop players. And I think we have the right formula."

Badgers grow from stumbles in Sparta

October, 20, 2011
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The Wisconsin Badgers who enter Spartan Stadium on Saturday night barely resemble the bunch that staggered out of the place on Nov. 1, 2008.

You might recognize the head coach, many of the assistants and some of the players. They're the same guys. The players will still wear all-white unis and helmets with the distinctive motion "W" on the sides.

But the similarities pretty much end there.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWisconsin coach Bret Bielema says he isn't upset after losing 11 assistants in the past three seasons.
These days Wisconsin is a program on the rise, approaching historic heights and hoping the final chapter of its story is written Jan. 9 in New Orleans. But if you want to know how the Badgers got here, you have to go back to when they reached rock bottom: Spartan Stadium, Nov. 1, 2008.

"It was a low point," coach Bret Bielema said. "I don't know if it was the lowest point in my coaching career, but that was a difficult one."

Wisconsin came to East Lansing at 4-4, already assured of a disappointing season. Considered a potential Big Ten title contender entering the fall, Wisconsin won its first three games and climbed to No. 9 in the polls.

Then the Badgers blew a 19-0 lead at Michigan and lost. Three more losses followed, including a 48-7 humiliation at home against Penn State. Bielema, who had gone 12-1 in 2006, came under fire, and many questioned whether Wisconsin could ever handle high expectations.

Wisconsin stopped its four-game slide against Illinois, setting up a game at Michigan State that, perhaps more than any other, showed how far the program needed to go.

Wisconsin built a 24-13 lead with 9:19 to play. But Michigan State's next possession began with an odd delay of game penalty on the defense, as Wisconsin was flagged for obstruction when safety Jay Valai bumped an official on his way to the field. Bielema, incensed by the call, earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for unloading on the official.

Rather than starting the drive at its own 36-yard line, Michigan State began on the Wisconsin 44 and marched to the end zone.

Wisconsin was flagged for eight penalties in the fourth quarter, including a holding call on future All-American John Moffitt, which nullified a run that likely would have sealed the win. Instead, Michigan State won 25-24 on a field goal as time expired.

"It was a game we thought we had in hand," Bielema said. "It was a difficult one, one we all grew from."

Wisconsin had significant edges in total yards (430-312) and rush yards (281-25) but came up short. The Michigan State loss stood out during a season of hard lessons for Bielema and his players.

"That was a challenging season, to say the least," senior wide receiver Nick Toon said. "We had a lot of penalties, a lot of mistakes, and didn't capitalize on our opportunities. It was a lack of discipline.

"That's not how we do things around here."

What has changed in the past 35 months?

Bielema cited three areas:

  • Improved communication on the road
  • Greater discipline, which begins in the types of players recruited
  • Opportunistic play on both sides of the ball

The Badgers drew 12 penalties against Michigan State in 2008. They drew 41 penalties all of last season, the fewest in the nation.

They finished 97th nationally in turnover margin in 2008 (minus-8). They improved to 47th in 2009 (plus-3), soared to sixth last season (plus-14) and rank tied for 11th nationally so far this season (plus-6).

Wisconsin football has become as much about not beating itself as beating the opponent with the power run, the play-action pass and opportunistic defense.

Still, the sight of Spartan Stadium on Saturday night might bring up bad memories. The Badgers have lost three consecutive games there, including their only regular-season loss in 2010, a 34-24 setback.

"Things just haven't swung our way the last couple times we were there," Toon said. "That's on us. We've got to go in, do what we do, prepare like we've been preparing all year."

Bielema often has pointed to last season's loss at Spartan Stadium as the springboard for Wisconsin's Rose Bowl run, saying, "I didn't know going into Michigan State if we had a championship team, but I knew leaving that locker room we did."

Wisconsin's only loss since then came in the Rose Bowl, and the Badgers have recorded road wins in places like Iowa City and Ann Arbor.

Rarely do college players get three opportunities to play in a road stadium. After falling short twice, Toon and his fellow seniors are anxious to change the script -- and continue a storybook season.

"Obviously, we didn't get the results we wanted to have the last couple times we were up there," Toon said. "So to go back and have a chance to make that right in my senior season would be great."
The Big Ten on Thursday announced its list of players appearing at preseason media days, which will be held July 28-29 in Chicago.

This announcement is probably bigger for media types than fans, but it gives an idea of who teams view as leaders and positive representatives for their programs.

Here's the list:

ILLINOIS
  • Jeff Allen, Sr., OL*
  • A.J. Jenkins, Sr., WR
  • Tavon Wilson, Sr., DB*
INDIANA
IOWA
  • Mike Daniels, Sr., DT*
  • Marvin McNutt, Sr., WR*
  • Tyler Nielsen, Sr., LB
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
  • Rex Burkhead, Jr., RB*
  • Jared Crick, Sr., DT*
  • Lavonte David, Sr., LB*
NORTHWESTERN
  • Jordan Mabin, Sr., CB*
  • Al Netter, Sr., OT*
  • Dan Persa, Sr., QB*
OHIO STATE
  • Mike Brewster, Sr., C*
  • Orhian Johnson, Jr., DB
  • Andrew Sweat, Sr., LB
PENN STATE
PURDUE
  • Albert Evans, Sr., S
  • Joe Holland, Sr., LB
  • Carson Wiggs, Sr., K/P*
WISCONSIN
  • Patrick Butrym, Sr., DT
  • Aaron Henry, Sr., S*
  • Nick Toon, Sr., WR*

*previous All-Big Ten or All-Big 12 (Nebraska) selection

Thoughts: Not a lot of surprises here. Six teams took the all-senior route with invitations, and no sophomores made the list. Three sophomores I hoped to see were Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin RB James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. It's a little surprising that neither White nor fellow running back Montee Ball made Wisconsin's list. ... There's a pretty good quarterback presence overall with Cousins, Denard Robinson, Gray and Persa. I was interested to see if Iowa would bring James Vandenberg, who has been tabbed as a team leader. ... As for charismatic personalities, there's not a Jay Valai on this list, but another Badger, Henry, should provide some entertainment. Other quotable players include Crick, Mabin, Gray, Cousins, Mauti, Trenton Robinson, Jeff Allen and Marvin McNutt. I'm sure I'll add a few names by the end of media days. ... Cousins will speak on behalf of the players at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon July 29. ... Purdue's Wiggs is the lone specialist making the trip to Chicago, just like Michigan State punter Aaron Bates was last year. ... The list includes 18 former All-Big Ten selections, while all three Nebraska players earned All-Big 12 honors in 2010. Six first-team all-conference honorees will be in attendance. ... The list likely includes the preseason offensive and defensive players of the year. I'd expect Denard Robinson or Persa to earn offensive honors and Crick or David to take home defensive honors.
Wisconsin's Aaron Henry is by no means a wallflower. The affable Floridian was one of the media stars of Rose Bowl week last season and an enthusiastic interview subject.

It just so happened that Henry played safety last year next to Jay Valai. Rush Limbaugh might seem quiet in the same room as Valai. But now that Valai has used up his eligibility, it's time for Henry's voice to be heard more.

[+] EnlargeAaron Henry
David Stluka/Icon SMIWisconsin safety Aaron Henry wants to "challenge" his teammates.
"I could tell a little difference in the spring without Jay, because he's one of those guys that will talk you ear off," Henry said last week. "He talks so much that I didn't have to be as vocal. I'll have to be a little more vocal this year. I'm definitely ready to step up to the plate and challenge my teammates."

The Badgers lost several good, respected leaders last year, including Valai, defensive end J.J. Watt, offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt and quarterback Scott Tolzien. They need new leaders to emerge, and Henry is ready to assume that role in the secondary.

He has already earned respect on the field. After switching from cornerback to free safety in 2010, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

This is the time of year when leaders really start to make their presence felt, as the players are mostly on their own during summer voluntary workouts. Henry said that's where last year's Rose Bowl team experienced some of its best growth.

"This time is crucial," he said. "People tend to forget that this is where we do a lot of team bonding, and where team chemistry comes in. Everybody put in the work last year -- that was guaranteed. As far as chemistry goes, guys were really clicking on and off the field. When you're close with a guy, you'll really be willing to stick up for him when the going gets tough."

This summer, Henry said he's helping organize film sessions for the younger defensive backs. It's not all work, though. Players have spent time together at Bible study, going bowling and hanging out on the lake. Receiver Nick Toon has use of a speedboat owned by his father, former NFL star Al Toon, and has invited teammates out on the water. Henry said he also went fishing with long snapper Kyle Wojta one day.

"Guys are doing a good job of getting out of their comfort zone and hanging out with people they usually don't hang out with," he said.

Wisconsin lost veteran cornerback Niles Brinkley along with Valai from last year's secondary. Devin Smith showed some playmaking ability at corner this spring, and All-Big Ten performer Antonio Fenelus is back for his senior season. Several other defensive backs have at least some game experience.

There might be more pressure on that secondary, since Watt won't be around to harass quarterbacks into hurried throws this year.

"I had the year I had because J.J. made my job so much easier," Henry said. "We have guys who can pick up that slack, but those are huge shoes to fill."

Chris Ash, who coached the secondary last year, is now the defensive coordinator. He'll also work with the cornerbacks, while new assistant DeMontie Cross coaches the safeties. Henry says Cross has brought an aggressive attitude to the Badgers.

"We're tough-nosed guys who will put our pads on you," Henry said. "A lot of people will know about the Wisconsin safeties. They'll know we're tough son-of-guns who will hit you in the mouth on every play."

And they'll know that Aaron Henry will be doing most of the group's talking.

Spring game preview: Wisconsin

April, 22, 2011
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Wisconsin wraps up its spring practice session Saturday with the annual spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers will put the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense and the second-string offense against the second-string D.

Let's take a quick look at what's happening in Madtown.

The vitals: 1 p.m. CT Saturday (2 p.m. ET) at Camp Randall Stadium; tickets are $5 (first year Wisconsin is charging), parking in Lots 16, 17 and 18 is $10 and free in Lots 51 and 60.

More details: Wisconsin will hold a kids sports fair in the McClain Center from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. CT and other events. Click here for more information.

Three things to watch

1. Jon Budmayr: After backing up Scott Tolzien in 2010, Budmayr has the inside track to land the starting job this fall. He has had some good moments this spring but still must cement himself as the top option or face a potential challenge from Curt Phillips in preseason camp. Wisconsin asks its quarterbacks to be efficient and limit mistakes. Budmayr has a big arm and can do some things Tolzien couldn't, but he must limit turnovers. A strong performance in the spring game should give Budmayr some confidence heading into a big summer.

2. Defensive end: Besides Tolzien, Wisconsin's biggest loss comes at defensive end as All-American J.J. Watt departs. Watt contributed in so many ways and will be impossible to replace with just one player, but Wisconsin needs to identify its primary pass rushers. Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both boast experience at the end spot, and Brendan Kelly is healthy and performing well this spring. Wisconsin has shuffled the line at times this spring and used 320-pound Beau Allen on the outside. Pat Muldoon and others also are in the mix. Who will step up Saturday and put pressure on the quarterbacks?

3. Leadership: No Big Ten team lost more stars than Wisconsin, which said goodbye to four All-Americans in addition to team leaders like Tolzien, linebacker Culmer St. Jean and safety Jay Valai. Fans at the spring game should watch for who is taking charge on both sides of the ball. Is Budmayr taking command of the offense? Who has stepped up along the offensive line, which loses Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy? Free safety Aaron Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym seem like natural leaders on defense, but who will help them? Saturday's game should provide some clues.
It took a little while, but I've managed to find the full statistics from Saturday's NFLPA all-star game, which pitted Team Texas against Team Nation.

The Texas all-stars won 13-7, and nine Big Ten players participated in the game -- six for Team Nation, three for Team Texas (Wisconsin's Jay Valai was a late addition).

Here's how the Big Ten contingent fared:
  • Iowa receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos recorded game highs in both receptions (5) and receiving yards (77) for the Nation squad. DJK didn't wear an Iowa helmet in the game and instead sported this headgear.
  • Valai recorded six tackles for Team Texas
  • Illinois defensive end Clay Nurse recorded four tackles and a sack for Team Nation
  • Northwestern linebacker Quentin Davie recorded three tackles for Team Texas, while his college and all-star teammate, defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, had a sack and two tackles
  • Ohio State cornerback Devon Torrence recorded a tackle for Team Nation

You can also check out my Big Ten recaps for the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game.
We looked at the recruiting needs for the Legends division earlier today. Now let's take a look at what the teams are looking for in the Leaders division.

As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.

ILLINOIS

Linebacker: Martez Wilson's early departure to the NFL leaves a void at middle linebacker, and Illinois also says goodbye to playmaker Nate Bussey and reserve Aaron Gress. Ian Thomas comes back and Jonathan Brown showed a spark, but Illinois has to rebuild some depth in its defensive midsection.

Wide receiver: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run the ball, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed in the Insight Bowl that he can be an effective passer. A.J. Jenkins returns to serve as Scheelhaase's No. 1 option in 2011, but Illinois needs other pass-catching options to emerge.

Quarterback: The Illini have lost two scholarship quarterbacks (Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer) in each of the past two seasons, creating a depth issue behind Scheelhaase. Given Scheelhaase's style of play, Illinois needs other options under center and must address this position with this class.

INDIANA

Secondary: The Hoosiers simply haven't had enough Big Ten-ready defensive backs in recent seasons. This might be a recruiting need for several years as Indiana has to begin building a talent base in the secondary.

Quarterback: Kevin Wilson has done wonders with quarterbacks at his previous coaching spots, but he needs talented players who can flourish in his system. Ben Chappell's departure leaves Indiana with no proven options at quarterback. Although the Hoosiers bring back all of their reserves, they should keep looking for the right answer under center.

OHIO STATE

Wide receiver: All-Big Ten receiver Dane Sanzenbacher departs, and DeVier Posey is suspended for the first five games of 2011, pending appeal. Ohio State hasn't developed much depth at wideout in recent seasons, and a capable freshman could put himself into the mix.

Quarterback: Ohio State needs someone to take the snaps during Terrelle Pryor's suspension, and it's unknown whether Joe Bauserman or Kenny Guiton will be the answer. The Buckeyes also must address life after Pryor in this recruiting class.

PENN STATE

Offensive line: The Lions began addressing this need with last year's class and will continue to do so with the 2011 crop. Getting the offensive line in order is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming a place among the Big Ten title contenders. Penn State loses standout guard Stefen Wisniewski and will have more departures after the 2011 season, so building depth is paramount.

Defensive line: Penn State lacked a dynamic pass rusher in 2010 and could bolster the end spot, but it can't neglect the defensive tackle position, either. Ollie Ogbu departs and Devon Still will be gone after the 2011 season. Although Jack Crawford returns at end, the depth there could be enhanced through recruiting.

PURDUE

Running back: The Boilers should avoid a depth disaster like the one they endured in 2010, but they can't take any chances, either. Coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord want to run the ball a lot and they need more options to emerge around Ralph Bolden and Al-Terek McBurse. There are opportunities for freshmen to emerge here.

Tight end: Purdue should be fine at receiver in 2011, but it loses starting tight end Kyle Adams, the team's top pass catcher, as well as backup Jeff Lindsay. Expect the Boilers to address the tight end position in the 2011 class, as it is a big part of the plan on offense.

WISCONSIN

Secondary: The Badgers lose a multiyear starter at safety in Jay Valai this season, and three more starters (safety Aaron Henry and cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith) will depart after the 2011 season. It's important to start building depth with this class.

Wide receiver: Wisconsin benefits from Nick Toon returning for his senior year, but the overall depth at receiver isn't great. David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson all depart and with Toon gone after the 2011 season, the Badgers need to find playmakers to complement Jared Abbrederis.

Pass rusher: J.J. Watt's early departure to the NFL draft creates a potential depth issue at defensive end. Returning starter Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both are good options, but the Badgers are young and unproven after those two. Young players like Beau Allen will take on bigger roles in 2011, and the team could use an incoming player or two to emerge.
It's time to take a look back at the highlights (there were a few) and lowlights (more of these) from the 2010-11 Big Ten bowl season.

Best performance: Iowa running back Marcus Coker in the Insight Bowl. You can make good cases for Terrelle Pryor and Nathan Scheelhaase as well, but Coker's performance under tough circumstances was absolutely amazing. The true freshman entered the Insight Bowl as Iowa's only reliable option at running back after Adam Robinson's suspension. He proceeded to rush for 219 yards -- an Iowa bowl record -- and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes beat Missouri.

[+] EnlargeDane Sanzenbacher
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDane Sanzenbacher's fumble recovery for a touchdown kept the momentum for Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Best save: Dane Sanzenbacher showed why his Ohio State teammates voted him MVP on the opening drive of the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Pryor neared the goal line on an electrifying run but fumbled the ball into the end zone. An Arkansas recovery would have turned momentum, but Sanzenbacher saved his quarterback by falling on the ball for his first career "rushing touchdown." Ohio State surged to a 28-7 lead and held on to win 31-26.

Worst defense: There are several nominees, as Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern combined to allow 146 points in bowl losses. It's a tough call between the Michigan schools, but I've got to go with the Wolverines, who suffered the worst bowl loss in team history and surrendered 52 points to a Mississippi State team with a good, but not great, offense. Michigan State didn't fare much better against Alabama, which pulled many of its starters early in the third quarter.

Best play: There might not have been a bigger play in the 2010-11 postseason than Micah Hyde's 72-yard interception return for a touchdown with 5:32 left in the Insight Bowl. Iowa's defense looked gassed and Missouri had limited the Hawkeyes' offense to three second-half points before Hyde picked off Blaine Gabbert and took it to the house. Solomon Thomas' interception to seal Ohio State's Sugar Bowl win also merits a mention here.

Worst strategic adjustment: It's hard to attach "worst" to this one, but we're dealing with extremes here. Wisconsin diverted ever so slightly from its season-long plan to pound away at defenses at TCU and paid the price in a 21-19 loss. The Horned Frogs never consistently stopped Wisconsin's backs on runs between the tackles, but the Badgers veered from their power game at inopportune times. Even though Wisconsin's potential 2-point conversion attempt nearly worked, it's still surprising the Badgers didn't go down with their bread-and-butter run game.

Best closing argument: Illinois in the Texas Bowl. The Illini came in at 6-6 and had displayed the maddening inconsistency to suit their record. But they put it all together against Baylor in a dominating victory. Vic Koenning's defense held Robert Griffin III in check and Scheelhaase showed significant progress from the end of the regular season to the bowl and provided the type of offensive balance Illinois needed.

Worst closing argument: Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Coach Mark Dantonio talked about the game as a chance to "measure up," but the Spartans flat-lined and provided fuel to their critics with a poor performance. Although Michigan State admittedly overachieved this season, a co-conference champion has to be more competitive in such a big setting. Not the type of ending Michigan State wanted for a breakthrough season.

Best quote: Wisconsin players stole the show at Rose Bowl media headquarters leading up to the game. Safety Jay Valai provided several gems, including this one about coming to Wisconsin from Texas. "No. 1 party school, No. 1 college sports town and No. 9 education. I said, 'Hey, you live once, why not Wisconsin?' It's been a great move, except dealing with that cold, cold weather. Not good for my African blood."

Best bowl atmosphere: The Rose Bowl isn't only the best Big Ten bowl atmosphere, but the best setting in all of college sports. Fans from both Wisconsin and TCU turned out in force, and the weather held up to create an unbelievable environment in Pasadena. Wisconsin fans did the "Jump Around" at the end of the third quarter, shaking the stadium and making California natives like me get a little nervous that the Big One had finally arrived.

Worst pre-bowl storyline: The annual Joe Paterno retirement rumors. These are really getting old, pun intended. I could seriously do a separate blog that only addressed the incessant buzz about the Penn State coach stepping aside. The JoePa retirement talk dominated the days leading up to the Outback Bowl, and along with the Urban Meyer situation, we didn't hear much about the game itself. The Ohio State suspension situation also dominated the talk leading up to the Sugar Bowl.

Rose Bowl keys for Wisconsin

December, 31, 2010
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Here are three keys for Wisconsin heading into its matchup against TCU in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

1. Change speeds on offense: John Clay is finally healthy, and Wisconsin should take advantage of its most experienced running back despite the success of Montee Ball and James White down the stretch in Big Ten play. Much like a pitcher with three great pitches, Wisconsin's ability to change speeds with its backs can make life extremely difficult for opposing defenses. The Badgers need Clay to pound away at TCU's undersized defenders and then switch things up with a speed back like White, who can take it the distance.

2. Maintain defensive playmaking: Wisconsin isn't a lock-down defense, and from a statistical standpoint, the Badgers' D lags behind the other three units (TCU offense, TCU defense, Wisconsin offense). But what Dave Doeren's unit does is make big plays. No Big Ten defender made more than Badgers end J.J. Watt, who recorded every defensive statistic except safety this season. Wisconsin also needs strong performances from All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, hard-hitting safety Jay Valai and others.

3. Control clock by avoiding obvious passing situations: The Badgers have dominated possession time this season and must control the clock with their run game against TCU. They don't allow many sacks, but they also have avoided obvious passing situations in third-and-long. Scott Tolzien isn't the most mobile quarterback and TCU defenders could rattle him if Wisconsin can't set up manageable third downs. Tolzien can be very effective with the play-action pass game if the Frogs are overly concerned about the run.
LOS ANGELES -- You could make a good case that Wisconsin's season turned in 12 seconds.

That's how long it took Badgers receiver David Gilreath to run 97 yards after receiving the opening kickoff against then-No. 1 Ohio State on Oct. 16.

"I don't know if it was a turning point," Gilreath said. "It was something that got us going. I still have people asking me about it. I can still watch it on YouTube and kind of get that feeling."

Gilreath's kick return touchdown set the tone for Wisconsin's 31-18 win against the Buckeyes, the biggest victory of the Bret Bielema era and one that spurred the Badgers to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. But the runback was just one of several special moments in the kicking game for the Badgers.

Special teams played an enormous role in Wisconsin's 20-19 win against Arizona State on Sept. 18. Safety Jay Valai blocked a potential game-tying PAT attempt in the closing minutes, and safeties Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward stopped Sun Devils kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks just shy of the goal line as the second quarter expired, saving a touchdown.

A week after the Ohio State win came "chain," a fake punt Wisconsin executed from its own 26-yard line while trailing Iowa 30-24 in the fourth quarter. The Badgers continued their drive and scored the game-winning touchdown to edge the Hawkeyes, 31-30.

"In those situations, those were big plays in our game, in our season, to get us where we are today," coach Bret Bielema said.

Special teams likely will loom large again Saturday against TCU in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. The Horned Frogs are solid on special teams and exceptional on both kickoff and punt returns, ranking fifth nationally in both categories.

TCU receiver Jeremy Kerley ranks among the top 20 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns. Wisconsin has struggled on both kickoff and punt coverage, ranking 106th nationally and 103rd nationally, respectively, although most of the struggles took place early in the season.

"Turning a weakness into a strength was a major thing we did this year," Wisconsin safety Jay Valai said of the special teams play. "We had a couple [shaky] games there for a second, Arizona State and Michigan State. We really woke up from those games and knew we had to really emphasize special teams."

Gilreath will never forget his runback against Ohio State.

About the only thing that could top it is a return touchdown in Pasadena.

"To get one in this game, I don't even know what I'd do," he said. "I'd turn [to the coaches] and [say], 'I'm done for the game. Take me out.' You’ve got to go out like [John] Elway or something."
LOS ANGELES -- Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry has had a very Good week in California.

That's Good with a capital 'G.'

Celebrity sightings are part of the deal out here, and Henry's pre-bowl highlight came when he met actress Meagan Good.

"You guys probably don't know her, but in the African-American community, she's very, very popular," Henry told reporters Wednesday. "And this young lady is as good as advertised."

"It was definitely an honor to meet her," Henry added. "She actually gave me a hug as well, so that was pretty nice."

Henry's story prompted a media member to do some research.

Reporter: Aaron, I just Googled Meagan Good, so I can understand your excitement.

Henry: Yes, sir.

Henry and fellow Badgers safety Jay Valai provided plenty of entertainment in Wednesday morning's media session.

Valai, a 5-9, 205-pound sound bite, weighed in on several topics.

Here are a few of Valai's pearls of wisdom:

On leaving his home state of Texas for Wisconsin: "No. 1 party school, No. 1 college sports town and No. 9 education. I said, 'Hey, you live once, why not Wisconsin?' It's been a great move, except dealing with that cold, cold weather. Not good for my African blood. Besides that, it's all good."

On Texans vs. Sconnies: "Wisconsin people, they're pretty strong no matter what's going on. They have your back and stuff like that. Being a [Dallas Cowboys] fan, I've done this up and down, I get upset real quick. We're used to winning so much, we get angry real quick after one game, one loss and they'll be all over you. But Badger fans, they're Packer fans, they're not going to kill you, they'll still support you. Texas people, we're a little more hot blooded."

On Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema: "He's the man around Madison. You see him out, he's all dressed up. He's a good dude. Sometimes it's better to be a bachelor in your life. ... Only reason he gave me a scholarship is because I had long arms after he saw how tall I was."

On whether he would have gone to Texas if offered: "Yeah, probably so, I'm not going to lie to you. Texas is done recruiting their junior year and then everybody else is left for the pickings. Coach [Mack] Brown picks his, and the rest of us mortals got to go to other schools, simple as that."

On the Wisconsin weather: "I remember this: They said we'll never go outside and practice if it's below 40. 40 degrees and lower we'll never be outside. Yeah, about 17 degrees and we were outside. I felt like a bunch of knives were being stabbed in my hands."

On whether Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien is unathletic: "I think he doubled his career yards in rushing the other day in practice. He had a little 15-yard scamper. He would have slid, too, but I think he wanted to dive for it again."

Good times with Wisconsin's safeties.
There's little doubt that Wisconsin's offense and TCU's defense will get most of the attention leading up to the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

The Badgers have made national news with their scoring prowess, reaching 70 points or more in three games and averaging 48.3 points during a seven-game Big Ten win streak to end the regular season. TCU's defense needs no introduction as the nation's top-ranked unit (215.4 ypg allowed) and a group loaded with NFL prospects.

Most folks tuning in to the Rose Bowl will do so primarily to watch these elite units match up.

But don't be surprised if the game is decided differently. Wisconsin safety Jay Valai thinks it'll come down to TCU's offense vs. the Badgers' defense.

"That's a very overlooked part of the game," Valai said. "Especially when they have a great offense over there, and our defense, we like making turnovers and we're very opportunistic. That could come down to what the game is going to be. You may get a stalemate on the other side, so we know we've got to come out guns blazing."

TCU's overshadowed offense actually has scored the same number of points as Wisconsin (520), tying the Badgers for fourth nationally in scoring (43.3 ppg). And Wisconsin's defense has somewhat quietly risen to 22nd nationally in yards allowed (323.5 ypg) and 29th nationally in points allowed (20.5 ppg).

The Badgers have become particularly good at creating takeaways, forcing 16 of them in their final four games.

"That's kind of why you saw such staggering numbers from our offense," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We got them the ball back and we had a couple of touchdowns on defense. We want to carry that momentum into the bowl game and do the same kind of thing.

"We want to make plays, we want to create some momentum, and we want to give our offense the ball as many times as we can."

Wisconsin can't really be called a lock-down defense, but the Badgers are fine with being labeled a playmaking defense.

"In a big-time game, you'd rather be a playmaking defense than a lock-down defense," Valai said. "Because making the plays, you're going to create the lock-down ability. We just want to be opportunistic.

"That's our role on the football field."
Let's look back before a very quick look ahead.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarKirk Cousins and the Spartans celebrate after their 28-22 win against Penn State.
Team of the Week: Michigan State. The Spartans put the final stamp on a special season by winning at Penn State for the first time since 1965. The victory gave Michigan State a share of the Big Ten championship for the first time since 1990. Michigan State took control of the game early behind quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Edwin Baker and a stout defense, and held on late to prevail 28-22. Minnesota and Indiana both deserve mentions as well for winning rivalry games and earning the right to do this and this.

Biggest play: Two defensive plays propelled Minnesota and Indiana to wins Saturday. Gophers cornerback Troy Stoudermire stripped the ball from Iowa's Marcus Coker late in the fourth quarter, which led to Minnesota running out the clock to preserve a 27-24 victory. Indiana linebacker Jeff Thomas picked off a Rob Henry pass in overtime, allowing the Hoosiers to drive for the game-winning field goal. Michigan State's recovery of an onside kick after Penn State had cut its deficit to six points also stands out.

Specialist spotlight: Indiana freshman Mitch Ewald came up big against Purdue with two field goals, the first to send the game into overtime and the second to win it in the extra session. Minnesota's Eric Ellestad went 2-for-2 on field goals and recovered his own onside kick against Iowa, helping the Gophers jump out to a 10-0 lead. Ohio State's Jordan Hall prevented Michigan from gaining any momentum with an 85-yard kick return for a touchdown midway through the second quarter. Northwestern's Venric Mark had a 94-yard kick return for a touchdown against Wisconsin, and his 273 return yards mark the second-highest single-game total in Big Ten history. Ohio State's Devin Barclay went 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts. The day featured good punting performances from Purdue's Cody Webster (56-yard average, three inside the 20-yard line), Iowa's Ryan Donahue (47.5-yard average, two inside the 20-yard line), Michigan State's Aaron Bates (46.5-yard average, two inside the 20-yard line) and Wisconsin's Brad Nortman (39.6-yard average, four inside the 20-yard line).

Filling the void: A quick shoutout to Jeff Horton, who did a very good job in a very difficult situation at Minnesota as interim coach. Horton kept the team focused despite the midseason firing of head coach Tim Brewster, and the Gophers ended the year with two solid wins against Illinois and Iowa. Although Minnesota will bring in a new coach, I would hope Horton gets consideration to remain on the staff. Otherwise, I'm sure he'll latch on elsewhere.

Game balls (given to players on winning or losing teams not recognized in helmet stickers)

  • Ohio State defensive end Nathan Williams: Williams ended the regular season on a very strong note with 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups as Ohio State held Michigan scoreless in the second half.
  • Indiana receiver Tandon Doss: Doss recorded three touchdown catches for the second multi-touchdown game of his career. He added 18 rushing yards on two carries and had 117 yards on six kickoff returns with a long of 30 yards.
  • Indiana linebacker Jeff Thomas: In addition to the interception in overtime, Thomas recorded three tackles for loss against Purdue.
  • Michigan State cornerback Chris L. Rucker: The senior recorded three pass breakups, a forced fumble and five tackles for a playmaking secondary in the win against Penn State.
  • Purdue linebacker Jason Werner: Werner finished his college career by recording 3.5 tackles for loss and eight total tackles in the overtime loss to Indiana.
  • Minnesota running backs DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett: The Gophers backfield tandem finished an up-and-down season on a good note, combining for 158 rush yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries in the win against Iowa.
  • Wisconsin safety Jay Valai: Valai recorded six tackles with a forced fumble and an interception as the Badgers recorded seven takeaways in the rout of Northwestern.
  • Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen: It was another rough day for the Wolverines' defense, but Van Bergen did his part with three tackles for loss, a sack and five total tackles.

There's only one Big Ten game on the docket this week and it comes to you Friday night on ESPN2.

Illinois (6-5) at Fresno State (7-4): The Illini can secure their first winning season since 2007 and possibly earn a berth to a Florida bowl with a victory. Fresno State typically plays very well at home, but has dropped games to Nevada and Hawaii on its home turf. The Bulldogs won last year's contest in Champaign 53-52 after one of the wildest plays you'll ever see, a two-point conversion by Fresno State offensive lineman Devan Cunningham following a tipped pass. Illinois' Mikel Leshoure rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns against Fresno State last year and comes off of a 330-yard rushing performance at Wrigley Field.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The state of Michigan hasn't been kind to Wisconsin.

Michigan soil might as well be quicksand for the Badgers.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesWisconsin'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?

Bingo.

"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."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Tony DingMontee 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."

Big Ten lunch links

October, 22, 2010
10/22/10
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I just can't turn down community service. 'Cause if I do, that judge will make me join the Coast Guard.

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