Saturday, September 18, 2010
Badgers' resolve tested in imperfect win
By Adam Rittenberg
MADISON, Wis. -- In a perfect world, Wisconsin would have delivered 60 minutes of dominance.
The Badgers would have bolstered John Clay's Heisman Trophy candidacy, dominated the line of scrimmage, stormed out to a big lead and exacted revenge on Arizona State quarterback Steven Threet for what he did at Michigan nearly two years ago.
But in the imperfect game of football, Wisconsin had to settle for 60 minutes of resolve.
Wisconsin's John Clay rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown against Arizona State.
Many things went wrong Saturday against Arizona State, but the 11th-ranked Badgers didn't let the negatives linger in a 20-19 victory at Camp Randall Stadium.
"There's a handful of plays that determine games, that determine seasons," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "Football is a game comprised of four quarters, 15 minutes each, 60 minutes of playing time. But really, it's 60 minutes of reaction.
"Who reacts better to what happens?"
Wisconsin reacted better Saturday, especially in two moments when things seemed dire.
The first came at the end of the opening half. Wisconsin's offense finally had translated yards into points, as Scott Tolzien found Herculean tight end Lance Kendricks in the end zone to claim a 13-10 lead.
Only 10 seconds remained in the half, but Philip Welch botched a squib kick. Arizona State already had one kick return for a touchdown against a Badgers team that ranked 119th nationally in kickoff coverage in 2009.
"Just watching, I'm like, 'Run Shelton, run Shelton, run Shelton,'" safety Jay Valai said. "I thought I had an asthma attack for a second."
Added defensive end J.J. Watt: "If he scores a touchdown there, it changes the entire dynamic of the game."
Badgers safety Shelton Johnson, with help from safety Dezmen Southward, tripped up Middlebrooks just shy of the goal line as time expired. Johnson said he had a good angle on Middlebrooks but likely needed Southward to slow him down before the end zone.
"That's a touchdown," Valai said. "Shelton stopped six or seven points right there. That was the biggest play of the game."
Johnson disagreed, giving the credit to Valai for his own "special" moment.
Wisconsin's defense had kept Arizona State out of the end zone for nearly 56 minutes before Cameron Marshall crossed the goal line with the apparent tying touchdown. Former Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber lined up for the extra-point try, but Valai burst through the line, hoisted his 5-foot-9 frame into the air and blocked the kick.
"A lot of guys don't pay attention to every play, but one thing the coaches drill into our heads is, 'This could be the play, this could be the play,'" Valai said. "I saw the hole, went over it, guy lifted me up in the air and I blocked it."
Veteran coach Dennis Erickson was as surprised as anyone to see Valai burst through.
"In all my career, I've never seen something like that," the Sun Devils coach said.
Bielema often watches how a defense, his own or an opponent's, responds after a touchdown is scored.
"It's a huge emphasis for me," Bielema said. "I point it out all the time when we go against a defense that gives no effort on a PAT. That doesn't just happen. That's from 365 days of mental and physical conditioning that our guys pride themselves on."
Valai's effort helped Wisconsin live another day as an undefeated team.
There were other examples of Badger resolve Saturday:
Down two primary receivers (Nick Toon and David Gilreath) because of injury, Wisconsin leaned on Kendricks, who recorded a career-high 131 receiving yards on seven catches. Tolzien also had his best performance of the young season (19-for-25, 246 pass yards, TD).
The defense held Arizona State to one offensive touchdown despite losing standout linebacker Chris Borland (shoulder) early and Watt and linebacker Culmer St. Jean for parts of the game.
Star left tackle Gabe Carimi, who is Jewish, played on Yom Kippur and fasted from noon Friday to 1 p.m. Saturday, when he received an IV before the game.
Watt twice left the game with a bruised quad but walked it off on the sideline and returned to record three quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
"We had so many different situations of adversity today," Watt said. "For our team to respond every single time and get out of here with a win, it's huge for us and gives us a lot of confidence going forward."
The Badgers certainly aren't without their issues.
Kick coverage lapses like the ones against Arizona State usually get you beat. Wisconsin continued a disturbing trend of racking up a ton of yards (440) but not translating it into points. Clay had another big day (22 carries, 123 rush yards, 1 TD) but couldn't convert two third-and-short situations in the fourth quarter.
Most unsettling is the potential loss of Borland, the team's best all-around player. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year on Saturday aggravated his surgically repaired left shoulder, which kept him out of last week's game.
Bielema didn't know the extent of the injury after the game but said, "We definitely want to do what's best for Chris. You can't just keep going with him not going to be there or going to be there. The fortunate thing is he does have a redshirt year available."
Can the Badgers overcome obstacles and still take a step from being very good to elite? Time will tell, Saturday's win showed they won't shy away from adversity.
"We've got to take everything we can from this game," Bielema said, "the breakdowns, the mistakes, but also the positives and the extra efforts. It's a summation of everything that went on. We did enough good things to win this football game, but we have to correct and move past anything that can prevent us from winning in the future.