NCF Nation: Aaron Henry

Wisconsin's wish list for the 2012 season certainly starts with a capable and effective quarterback. But an elite pass-rusher might come next.

Although the Badgers' defense put up good numbers in 2011 -- ranking 15th nationally in total defense, 13th in scoring defense and fourth in pass defense -- it didn't put much heat on opposing quarterbacks (71st nationally in sacks). J.J. Watt certainly was missed. Watt had taken the baton from another top pass-rusher, O'Brien Schofield, following the 2009 season.

[+] EnlargeDavid Gilbert
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin's David Gilbert said he has a "passion" for putting heat on opposing quarterbacks.
Who can turn up the heat in Badger Country this fall? David Gilbert nominates ... himself.

"I always wanted to be a premier pass-rusher here," Gilbert told "It's what I like to do. It's my passion. So I don't think I'll have any problems being that. That's what I bring to the team."

Wisconsin gladly would welcome it from a defensive end who may have been on his way to big things in 2011 before suffering a broken right foot in practice before the Big Ten opener against Nebraska. Gilbert had started each of Wisconsin's first four games and had recorded three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

He tried to rush back in time for Wisconsin's Rose Bowl appearance, only to suffer a second break as well as nerve damage shortly before the team headed to Los Angeles. He initially scheduled surgery for March but decided against it, and has been rehabbing ever since.

"I'm 93 percent," Gilbert said, admitting the specific percentage is a self-diagnosis. "The X-rays are pretty positive, but you don't want to get a third break there. It's an easy injury to resurrect. I wouldn't run a shuttle to my right side. Lateral movement is my final test, so I'd say 93 percent.

"It's a learning process, but I'm definitely close at this point in my recovery."

The lengthy rehab and setbacks have taught Gilbert patience and the importance of communicating with his doctors and trainers. But his approach to the game hasn't changed.

He wants to make a splash on every snap, and compete with his teammates for big plays.

"If I make a play, I go up to whoever it is closest to me and they've got to make a play next," he said. "It's a competition between defensive players, how perfect we can be. I want them to make plays. Pass the juice. That's what it is: Pass the juice all game."

The "pass the juice" phrase comes from Gilbert's high school days in Coral Springs, Fla.

"We were all so greedy in high school," he said. "I had to find a way to phrase it. We were competing all the time for tackles. If anyone got four yards, we were pissed. We were coming for your head. We didn't want to give anyone anything. That was our mentality."

Gilbert hopes he can instill the mentality with Wisconsin's defense, which can trace its shortcomings to a handful of plays. The two long passes for touchdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State certainly stand out, but Oregon also gashed Wisconsin for touchdowns of 91, 64 and 54 yards in its Rose Bowl victory.

"When you play against a team that can get three good plays on you and win, that's going to fuel the mentality even more than you don't want to give anyone anything," Gilbert said. "A yard is too much. Zero yards is too much. We want negative yardage. That's the mentality I'm going to try to put with everyone on the defense.

"If you let up for one second …"

Wisconsin loses some key pieces on defense -- safety Aaron Henry, cornerback Antonio Fenelus, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym -- but it also regains the services of two defensive starters, Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith, who missed almost the entire 2011 season. Head coach Bret Bielema last month caused a stir when discussing Smith's value, telling ESPN Radio Madison, "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."

Bielema feels similarly about Gilbert.

"There were two significant injuries for us last year, to David Gilbert and Devin Smith," Bielema told "David has a chance physically to be a premier player in our league. He's really starting to come into his own.

"Hopefully, he'll be the backbone of a third straight [Big Ten] championship run this year."
Wisconsin celebratesJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesDuring the 2009 season, cornerback Devin Smith (No. 10) started every game for the Badgers.
Bret Bielema's comments about star Devin Smith and the value he would have brought Wisconsin in 2011 quickly made their way around America's dairyland and Big Ten country.

Smith, a starting cornerback for the Badgers, missed all but two games last season with a foot injury that required surgery.

In case you missed it, here's what Bielema, the Badgers' coach, told ESPN Radio Madison last month:
"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. 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."

Bielema's bold words gained a good deal of attention, except from the man being discussed. Last week, Smith told that he didn't know what his coach had said about him.

"I have a lot of respect for Coach B, and I really appreciate that," Smith said. "It's hard to say what could have happened if I wasn't injured, but I definitely appreciate that compliment. You never know."

Here's what is known: Smith will be back this season. The senior is fully cleared and will participate in all of preseason camp. Smith injured his left foot in a Week 2 win against Oregon State and underwent surgery two days later.

Smith had limited participation in spring practice, but he's getting back to full strength in summer workouts.

"It's a great feeling, being able to get back out and execute at 100 percent," Smith said. "I can't wait for the season to get here."

Smith started every game in 2009 and led the squad in passes defended (11). He moved to the nickel back role the next year, making just one start, but reclaimed a spot in the lineup opposite All-Big Ten corner Antonio Fenelus in 2011.

"I felt like I had a lot of momentum going into the year," he said. "I felt I was at the top of my game, and I was only going to get better as the season progressed."

The foot injury changed his plans. The season wasn't a total waste, though, as Smith gained knowledge from an "outside perspective" of watching from the sideline.

He expects to be a smarter player and a more active leader in the secondary this season. The secondary loses its top leader, safety Aaron Henry, as well as Fenelus. Smith, cornerback Marcus Cromartie and safety Shelton Johnson, who arrived at Wisconsin together in 2008, are ready to step up.

Smith has helped mentor younger defensive backs like Peniel Jean, Darius Hillary and Terrance Floyd.

"We've been around a lot, from 7-6 to a 10-3 to two Rose Bowl teams," Smith said. "We definitely know what it takes to become successful and how to win. I definitely see myself as a leader, not just for the secondary but for the team as well. I can definitely fill that senior leadership that we need to get where we want to go at the end of the season."

Wisconsin ranked fourth nationally in pass defense (163.6 ypg allowed), 35th in pass efficiency defense (120.4 rating) and tied for 18th in passes intercepted (16), but the secondary was cast in a negative light after allowing long touchdown passes at the end of losses to both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Bielema offered a potential explanation, telling ESPN Radio Madison, "Those plays that hit, they were going after [Smith's] backup, Marcus Cromartie." Smith didn't throw Cromartie under the bus, saying his replacement "did an unbelievable job," but he acknowledged the secondary has room for improvement.

"Everybody remembers those two plays," Smith said. "We're not going to stress on it, but we're trying to learn from it and be able to move forward. [Defensive coordinator Chris] Ash definitely stresses that if you play 80 plays in a game and 79 good plays, that one play can be the difference. "

Wisconsin hopes Smith can be the difference as it aims for another Big Ten title, a third consecutive trip to Pasadena and, this, time, a Rose Bowl victory.

"We have to have that mentality," Smith said, "to finish every single game."
MADISON, Wisc. -- 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."
The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.
De'Anthony ThomasKelvin Kuo/US PresswireDe'Anthony Thomas ripped off two huge runs against a Wisconsin defense that gave up 621 yards.
PASADENA, Calif. -- The simple storyline coming out of the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio will likely be that Wisconsin simply wasn't fast enough to beat Oregon.

Plenty of evidence would support that conclusion. Never in the 98 years of the Rose Bowl has a team averaged as much as 9.7 yards per play, as the Ducks did in their 45-38 win. Oregon racked up 621 total yards and had scoring plays of 91, 64, 54 and 41 yards as Badgers defenders often hopelessly chased from behind.

Wisconsin players bristled at the notion that they couldn't run with Oregon, and not surprisingly. They've heard the too-slow critique for years and have won enough games to disprove much of it. They preferred to blame Monday's defensive performance on things like "gap accountability," missed assignments and just plain brain cramps.

"I think we lost our mind on some plays," defensive end Louis Nzegwu said.

Fans and media are often guilty of not thinking clearly when trying to explain a team's losses. Wisconsin has now dropped two straight Rose Bowls by the thinnest of margins, and there will be those who try to diagnose why the program "can't win the big one." It's the same stuff Oregon heard until late Monday evening. Never mind that the Ducks lost close games in their last two BCS losses, or that the Badgers might be celebrating a second straight Rose win if just a couple of plays had gone differently.

Yet if there's anything the past two Rose Bowls have taught us -- and especially this one -- it's that Wisconsin needs more difference-makers on defense.

That doesn't necessarily mean more speed, though that wouldn't hurt. Even though De'Anthony Thomas and LaMichael James spent a lot of time gliding down the field alone or with a friendly escort, the Badgers didn't come away thinking they couldn't keep up with the Ducks.

"I thought they were fast, but I thought we matched them pretty well," safety Aaron Henry said. "Whenever we did what we were supposed to do, we got off the field. When we allowed them to run through holes without being touched, they took advantage of it."

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema used the month of preparation to simulate Oregon's accelerated pace as much as possible. The defense faced two scout-team offenses at once during practice and went through extra conditioning work to get ready for the up-tempo.

It turned out that didn't play much of a factor. The Ducks often didn't go at warp speed with their snaps. They just scored really quickly. Two examples were particularly galling for Wisconsin.

The Badgers had pinned the ball with a punt on the Oregon 9-yard-line late in the first quarter, only to have Thomas rip off a Rose Bowl-record 91-yard touchdown. On the first series after halftime when adjustments should have been fine-tuned, the Ducks scored in just 33 seconds on a 64-yard Thomas run.

"With a month to prepare, we shouldn't have had problems like that," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Their mixing up of formations and things, they do get you off of your keys. But there's really no excuse for it."

Oregon averaged 8.6 yards per rush -- another Rose record -- and quarterback Darron Thomas threw for 268 yards, his third-highest total of the season. Wisconsin only sacked him twice and did not stop much of anything outside of the Ducks' screen game.

"What hurt us was the play-action pass," Nzegwu said. "We respected their run, and when some of our D-ends hit the edge we couldn't tell whether it was a run or pass. We kept on following the running back, and that kind of hurt our pass rush."

What also hurts is a lack of defenders who can blow up plays on their own. Nzegwu returned a fumble Taylor caused by a hit on Thomas for a touchdown, and Henry came up with an interception. But there were too few other impact plays. Oregon has lost under coach Chip Kelly when it has faced teams with a standout defensive line and other disruptive presences, like Nick Fairley of Auburn or Tyrann Mathieu of LSU. The Badgers have many good defensive players -- Taylor and fellow linebacker Chris Borland were All-Big Ten selections -- but not enough stars or blue-chip NFL prospects.

The program has shown it can produce those types of players. Defensive end J.J. Watt won the Lott Trophy last year and just wrapped up a strong rookie regular season for the Houston Texans. Even with Watt last year, though, Wisconsin struggled to contain TCU's skill players in a 21-19 Rose Bowl loss.

Wisconsin is known for offensive studs like quarterback Russell Wilson and Montee Ball and those NFL offensive linemen; Bielema's next challenge is to attract and develop similarly elite talent on the other side of the ball. Wisconsin may have to rely more on its defense next year without Wilson, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and most likely Ball.

It's true that Oregon will make a lot of teams look slow when its offense is clicking. But it's also true that teams don't win many BCS games by giving up 621 yards and 45 points.

"We didn't even challenge them on two or three of their scores, and nobody can win doing that," Bielema said.

The Badgers were just a couple plays short of winning every game they played this season, so a major overhaul is not in order. A few more defensive difference-makers, however, could have changed those outcomes.

Video: Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry

January, 2, 2012
PM ET's Brian Bennett talks with Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry following the Badgers' loss in the Rose Bowl.
PASADENA, Calif. -- If the fourth quarter is anything like the first three here at Rose Bowl Stadium, we could be headed for a finish for the ages.

Wisconsin and Oregon traded punches and turnovers in the third quarter, and it remains anyone's game.

Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas opened the half by burning Wisconsin for another big play, going 64 yards for a touchdown just three plays and 33 seconds after halftime. When Thomas turns the corner, it's lights out for the defense.

That looked like it might be dispiriting for the Badgers, but Russell Wilson led the team on two scoring drives, throwing a touchdown pass to Nick Toon after picking up two key third downs on the drive. An earlier Wisconsin field goal felt like a win for the Ducks defense with the way this game has gone.

The Badgers defense forced a rare three-and-out and came up with their second turnover of the game when Aaron Henry intercepted Darron Thomas on an overthrown third-and-long pass. But Wisconsin gave it right back on a Russell Wilson interception, just his fourth of the season. Oregon's Kiko Alonso came up with the pick.

Wilson was having a tremendous game in his first opportunity to play in a big bowl. That interception could cost him his quest to finish ahead of Baylor's Robert Griffin III for the NCAA single-season passing-efficiency record, though I'm sure all he wants is the win.

Surprisingly, it hasn't really been Oregon's pace that has bothered Wisconsin. It has been Oregon's speed and skill. And Wisconsin's passing game has been better than most people probably expected, though, that interception really hurt.

All the stars have show up -- Wilson, Montee Ball, Thomas, LaMichael James. If the fourth quarter is anything like the first three, this could go down as one of the best Rose Bowls ever. And that's saying something.
If it's bowl season, that must mean it's time for people to question whether or not Wisconsin has enough speed to compete.

That's a more reliable refrain than any Christmas song around the holidays. The Badgers heard the questions when they played Florida State in 2009, Miami in 2010 and last year against TCU. So, of course, that same old tune is popping up again for the Rose Bowl showdown versus Oregon.

"I remember hearing a line about this game, that the headline is going to be speed versus power," Wisconsin center Peter Konz said Wednesday. "I was like, 'Where have you been the last four years?'"

Keshawn Martin
Michael Hickey/US PresswireLinebacker Chris Borland (44) and the Wisconsin defense have a tall task ahead of them at the Rose Bowl. "Oregon is probably faster than every defense in the nation," Borland said.
So, yes, Wisconsin's quickness or supposed lack thereof is a tired storyline and one that was overblown to begin with. Except that there is a legitimate speed concern looming in this game, one that has little to do with the Badgers' athleticism. It's the same problem everyone who plays the Ducks has: how to prepare for, and stop, their freakishly fast offense.

"Oregon is probably faster than every defense in the nation," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "We're not unique in that."

Hardly anyone can simulate the rapid pace at which Oregon plays. Chip Kelly's offense likes to sprint to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball before the defense sets. Wisconsin has come up with a few ways to try and get ready for that.

For the first time since he's been a head coach, Bret Bielema said he has ended bowl practices with conditioning work for the defense. The Badgers' first-team offense has run a lot of two-minute drill situations against the first-team defense to give them a high-tempo look.

Wisconsin is using two separate scout team offenses in practice. After one scout squad finishes a play, the second unit hustles to the line to snap another play in an effort to simulate Oregon's speed.

"We use two waves in order to get two plays off in about 20 seconds," Borland said. "I think we've been able to emulate the tempo pretty well."

A main problem against the Ducks is getting the defense set before they yell hike.

"So many of their big plays come against defenses that are actually looking over to the sideline when they're ready to snap the ball," defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "One of our No. 1 priorities is just getting lined up."

To that end, Ash has simplified many of the defensive calls for this game. Borland, the middle linebacker, will use shorter phrases and quicker hand gestures to signal his teammates where to be. Wisconsin will probably rely less on making checks at the line, which is OK since Oregon often runs the same plays repeatedly. The challenge will be getting the assignments right while moving at a higher speed.

"You have to be in great physical shape and also have a great mental capacity to be ready for all the things they're going to throw at us," safety Aaron Henry said. "It's so quick that everybody has to know where to be play from there."

Opposing teams have tried all sorts of ways to prepare for the Ducks. The list of those who have succeeded is a short one.

"In all reality, there's really not much you can do to simulate it until we get to the stadium and play the opening series to see how fast it is and how we're going to match up," Ash said.

Wisconsin's defense doesn't get much attention because of how large a shadow the team's offense casts (quite literally, in the case of the offensive linemen). But Ash's side of the ball ranked No. 8 nationally in total defense and sixth in the FBS in points allowed at just 17 per game. While the last-minute, long touchdown passes by Michigan State and Ohio State stick in most people's minds, the Badgers quietly excelled in just about every facet defensively this season. Bielema ays Ash -- who took over for Dave Doeren as coordinator before this season -- and his assistants are as good as any defensive coaches he's worked with at making in-game adjustments.

"Bret's done a great job of hiring the right people on the defensive staff who have similar philosophies," Ash said. "We know our package inside and out, and we know our strengths and weaknesses. We game plan, but we also make a lot of contingency plans for things that can be potential problems. And I think our players can adjust."

It's likely that, with a month's prep time and all the wrinkles Kelly injects into the Oregon attack, Wisconsin will be forced to make major changes on the fly Monday evening. If there's a question about the Badgers' speed worth asking, that's the one.
Wisconsin defensive end Patrick Butrym couldn't watch "SportsCenter" for about a week last January. He stayed away from any websites that covered college football.

Butrym was so upset by his team's 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day that he just had to ignore any mention of it.

"I really had a difficult time coping with it for a long time," he said. "I never did really put it behind me. It still bothers me. It bothers us."

Luckily for him and the Badgers, they have a chance to do something about it on Jan. 2. Rarely does a Big Ten team reach consecutive Rose Bowls. Since 1980, only four other teams have done so -- Michigan 2004-05, Wisconsin 1999-2000, Michigan 1992-93 and Michigan 1989-90.

[+] EnlargeTank Carder
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesLast season's Rose Bowl loss to TCU is a painful memory to the Wisconsin Badgers.
Back in Pasadena for a second straight year, this Wisconsin team vows to do things differently this time around against Oregon. It wasn't so much that the Badgers played terribly against TCU; they had a chance to tie the game in the final two minutes, but Scott Tolzien's pass on a two-point conversion try was batted down. Some players just felt as if they could have focused a little harder in bowl preparation, and maybe that would have put them over the top.

"Nobody really knew what to expect last year," safety Aaron Henry said. "A lot of us were going to L.A. for the first time, and there were a lot of distractions. It's Hollywood. We were living in Beverly Hills in an extremely nice hotel. When we got off the plane, I'm sure some guys were in shock."

Remember that even though TCU was the odd duck in last postseason's game as a non-AQ team, the Horned Frogs had played in a BCS game the year before. None of the Badgers had ever been on that stage before. The Rose Bowl is the mecca for Big Ten players, and with all the events and eye candy associated with the game -- Henry gushed this time last year about meeting actress Meagan Good -- it's easy to see how concentration can lapse.

That shouldn't be as much of an issue this year.

"Being there a second time has kind of eliminated that deer in the headlights effect," offensive tackle Josh Oglesby said. "We've seen all the lights. We've seen all the glitz and glamour that goes on with the Rose Bowl. It's more of a been there, done that mentality now. It's more of a business-trip attitude and we're not just happy to be there."

The Badgers will still try to enjoy the experience. They will do the usual events, like the Beef Bowl at Lawry's and Tuesday's arrival trip to Disneyland. Coach Bret Bielema said he'll take a group of players to a Lakers-Knicks game. Bielema is also altering the team's uniforms for this game as a reward.

Bielema said he's going to hold shorter, crisper practices in California to better hold the players' focus.

"With the second trip coming back to back, you try to change up a few things that maybe we did from a year ago, not only practice-wise but also some of the stuff we did away from the field," he said. "We're staying at a great hotel, get a lot of neat opportunities that come about just from being able to be in L.A., so you try to maximize that for the kids as well. ... But when it's time to work, I need you to work."

Bielema said running back Montee Ball is one of the team leaders, making sure that everyone maintains a business attitude. Ball, who was tackled from behind on a 40-yard gain in the game's first play last postseason, used the Rose Bowl as motivation for his offseason workouts. He lost about 20 pounds and responded with a monster season that included a Big Ten rushing title and 38 touchdowns.

A lot of Wisconsin players have stories like that. Butrym remembers turning to a teammate immediately after the TCU loss and saying, "We have to get back here next year." When the team lost back-to-back heartbreakers to Michigan State and Ohio State, the goal of getting back to the Rose Bowl helped keep spirits up.

Oregon has similar motivation after coming up short in the 2010 Rose Bowl against Ohio State and losing the national title game last postseason to Auburn. Some Wisconsin upperclassmen have experience with postseason atonement. The Badgers lost the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl to Florida State before returning to the same game to beat Miami a year later.

They hope to repeat that history in a bigger bowl. Or else they could be facing another long offseason of regret.

"Any time you're right there in reach of having success and then it slips away, it's a feeling you don't want to go through as an athlete," Henry said. "Winning this game would be the icing on the cake for us. And it's no good to eat a cake with no icing on it."

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio

December, 4, 2011
Wisconsin Badgers (11-2) vs. Oregon Ducks (11-2)

Jan. 2, 5 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Wisconsin take from Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett: The memory of last year's 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl helped motivate Wisconsin this offseason.

The Badgers made it their mission to get back to the BCS and change the outcome this year, a plan that was nearly derailed by two straight dispiriting October losses. But they battled back to clinch consecutive trips to Pasadena for the first time since the 1998-99 seasons. And the players say they're not satisfied just to get there.

"We didn't finish it right last year," safety Aaron Henry said. "To have a chance to go out there and finish off something is a truly amazing, special feeling."

It won't be easy. Oregon is one of only three teams in the country that scored more points than Wisconsin this season, and the Ducks' speed could cause major problems for a defense that struggled against swiftness in space at times this year.

The Badgers' best defense, though, could be its offense. Their imposing offensive line could wear on the smaller Ducks, and the ground game led by Montee Ball -- who needs just two more touchdowns to set the single-season FBS record -- will help keep Oregon's offense off the field. Quarterback Russell Wilson should thrive against a less physical defense than he faced in the Big Ten, and he embraces the big stage.

An NC State transfer, Wilson will be making his first BCS appearance. The rest of his teammates know the Rose Bowl well. They hope to find out what a Rose Bowl victory feels like.

Oregon take from Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller: Oregon is headed to its third consecutive BCS bowl game and second Rose Bowl in three years. That's great, but the Ducks are 0-2 in those games, so the program is no longer just happy to be there. They need to win to climb another rung in the national pecking order.

The Ducks are not unlike previous varieties. They are again an offensive juggernaut, ranking third in the nation in scoring, fifth in rushing and sixth in total offense. Their relentless, up-tempo offense wears opposing defenses down and causes them to lose concentration and gap integrity. The perceived Achilles’ heel that will be tested, however, is this: Coach Chip Kelly has lost six times. In five of those losses, high-quality teams had extra time to prepare their defenses. Your turn, Wisconsin.

That's one take of the Ducks' opener against LSU in Cowboys Stadium. They lost 40-27 in large part because their rebuilt offensive line struggled with the Tigers’ front seven. Of course, Oregon fans will point to losing the turnover battle 4-1. And it's worth noting no other team scored as many points against the Tigers this year. Only West Virginia had more total yards against LSU.

After the LSU loss, Oregon mostly cruised. The marquee showdown at Stanford was underwhelming, as the Ducks' defense controlled Cardinal QB Andrew Luck and the offense just looked too fast for Stanford.

The win at Stanford put the Ducks back into the national title discussion. A week later, however, they were out with a 38-35 loss to USC, missing a late field goal for the tie as time expired. They bounced back with easy wins over Oregon State and UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Ducks' chief star is running back LaMichael James, the 2010 Doak Walker Award winner and the first back in conference history to rush for more than 1,500 yards three consecutive seasons. But there are plenty of weapons on offense, including multipurpose true freshman De'Anthony Thomas, backup running back Kenjon Barner and tight end David Paulson. The defense produced three first-team All-Pac-12 players and a second-teamer, so it's not a nameless bunch in conference circles. It's solid in most areas and ranks third in the nation with 3.3 sacks per game.

Badgers find uncommon route to title

December, 4, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- Russell Wilson had barely arrived in Madison this past summer when he shared his vision for the season.

"I want to be part of something special," the NC State transfer announced upon meeting his new Wisconsin teammates. "I don't want to be common. I want to be uncommon."

Very little was common about the first Big Ten championship game. A league known for grinding it out in cold weather put on a thrilling, offensive pingpong contest at Lucas Oil Field. Michigan State and Wisconsin figured to have a hard time matching their Oct. 22 classic, but they came pretty close to repeating it note for note. And the Badgers won 42-39 despite getting outgained and outplayed most of the night before somehow finding a way to secure their second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl.

"The adversity we faced this season helped us tonight, I believe," Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing said. "To be able to battle back like that is special. You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."

A season that began with enormous expectations nearly came crashing down on consecutive October weekends, when Michigan State and Ohio State delivered last-minute, intestine-twisting, game-winning touchdowns. The Badgers had zero room for error after those two conference losses and needed help from other teams just to get to Indianapolis.

When they got here, they had to face a Spartans team that beat them in three of the previous four meetings. And the rematch began to play out in eerily similar fashion to Michigan State's 37-31 victory on Oct. 22 in East Lansing.

Just as in that game, the Badgers raced out to a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter, only to see the wheels come off. The Spartans outscored Wisconsin 23-0 in the second quarter of the first game; on Saturday, they ripped off 22 consecutive points to take a 29-21 halftime lead.

"For whatever reason, we don't play well in the second quarter against Michigan State," head coach Bret Bielema said. "So we survived it."

Russell Wilson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTo be able to battle back like that is special," Russell Wilson said. "You remember a season like that more than you would a lot of other seasons."
Wisconsin inched back into the game but still trailed 39-34 late in the fourth quarter and had little choice but to go for a fourth-and-6 from the 43-yard line. As he had been many times in the game, Wilson got flushed from the pocket by Michigan State's pressure. He flung a pass toward Jeff Duckworth, who had two Spartans covering him.

"I had to give him a shot," Wilson said. "It was pretty much the only thing I could do. I knew I had to throw it up and give it a chance."

Duckworth had broken his corner pattern to the inside -- "It was kind of a bad route, actually," he would say later. But the receiver who caught only 12 passes in the regular season went up and grabbed the ball for a first down at the 7. Montee Ball then did what he does best, scoring his 38th touchdown of the season, and Wilson scrambled until he could find Jacob Pedersen for the 2-point conversion.

The Duckworth pass brought back instant memories of Michigan State's Hail Mary pass to win in East Lansing on Oct. 22. That play started from 1 yard farther back on the field and also went toward the right corner of the end zone, although the degree of difficulty was higher. Karmic payback, perhaps?

"A common saying that we've been using quite a bit over the last three or four weeks is 'Those who are humbled will be exalted, and those who are exalted will be humbled,'" Bielema said. "And I thought that play right there gave justice to everything."

More weird turnarounds were at work. Special-teams breakdowns played a key role in both Badgers losses this season, as Michigan State and Ohio State each blocked a punt that was taken in for a score or directly led to a touchdown. Surely the Spartans considered that weak spot when they decided to go after a Wisconsin punt with less than two minutes left.

That proved disastrous when Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into punter Brad Nortman, resulting in a first down and Wisconsin bringing on the victory formation. (It only adds to the irony that Lewis made headlines before the first game when he said Michigan State's defense was going to hurt Wilson.) Nortman had an excellent game, averaging 45 yards on five punts, and Wisconsin actually forced a turnover in the kicking game to score a touchdown.

"I preached special teams all week," Bielema said.

This was an uncommon way to win a championship. The Badgers were outgained 471 to 345 by the Spartans and had only 126 rushing yards to Michigan State's 190. Ball alone ran for 105 yards in the first quarter before the normally powerful ground game stalled. Michigan State took advantage of Wisconsin's lack of speed on the edge of its defense most of the night. Look at the stat sheet, and it's hard to figure out how the Badgers won. But their entire season was about not staying down.

"With the team we had, we were thinking national championship," safety Aaron Henry said. "For us to lose the way we did in those two games, it was definitely devastating. [But] our guys rallied, and it pretty much unfolded in front of your eyes."

In Wilson's case, an ear told the story. He tucked a rose over his right ear and kept it there long after the game was over, savoring his first chance to play in a BCS bowl. His vision from the summer had been fulfilled.

"We are definitely uncommon," he said.
Wisconsin and Michigan State will play for the Big Ten championship this Saturday in Indianapolis. Of course, it is a rematch of their Oct. 22 meeting, won by [spoiler alert!] the Spartans 37-31 in one of the best games of the college football season.

In order to understand all the storylines and key matchups of this week's game, it's crucial to know exactly what happened the first time. So I decided to go back and watch that initial encounter and, with apologies to Bill Simmons, provide my thoughts and observations in a retro diary. You can follow along through the magic of here. Or you can just read.

This first installment will cover the first half of the game. I'll be back later on today with the second-half diary. Wonder if anything cool will happen late in the game?


  • Kirk Herbstreit says, "This is what we've all wanted to see for a number of weeks." I think the same line could be used Saturday night.
  • Michigan State's Keith Nichol is one of the first Spartans to come out of the tunnel for introductions. I've got a hunch he could play a role in this one somehow.
  • I don't know how good the audio quality is on my replay, but it sounds extremely quiet when Wisconsin takes the field. No boos, just silence. Someone who was there will have to tell me if that's how it really went down at Spartan Stadium. If so, I think that's the best way to taunt an opponent; just ignore them. I recommend this for all home fans from here on out.
[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesWisconsin will be dangerous on the ground again in 2012 with Montee Ball and James White returning.
First quarter

  • 15:00: Wisconsin wins the toss and takes the ball first. The first play of the game is a handoff to Montee Ball, who runs 8 yards before plowing into Isaiah Lewis's shoulder. Lewis goes down and has to leave the game. Remember, Lewis gave the Badgers some major bulletin board material the week before after beating Michigan, saying the Spartans defense "was going to hurt" Russell Wilson. You think Ball remembered that as he slammed into Lewis?
  • 12:03: Russell Wilson throws his first pass -- complete to Jacob Pedersen -- after four straight Ball runs have softened up the defense. Lewis comes back in.
  • 8:48: On third-and-4, Wilson play-fakes to Ball and throws a touchdown pass to a wide-open Pedersen with Anthony Rashad White and Marcus Rush bearing down on the quarterback. That was the second straight completion off play-action for Wilson, as Michigan State's safeties and linebackers are biting hard on the run. It's a textbook, 80-yard Wisconsin style drive with almost perfect balance. The game could not have started off better for the Badgers. 7-0, Wisconsin
  • 8:33: Uh-oh for Sparty. Tailback Edwin Baker fumbles on Michigan State's first offensive play, thanks to a hit from linebacker Mike Taylor. The officials review whether or not Wisconsin's Marcus Cromartie touched the ball first while coming from out of bounds on the recovery, but the play stands and the Badgers take over.
  • 7:42: Wisconsin needs only three plays to cash in the fumble, as Ball rushes up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown. 14-0, Wisconsin. Wilson completed another pass off play-action immediately before. It was not a good series for Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson, who was fooled on the play-fake and then broke the wrong way before unsuccessfully trying to arm tackle Ball. Hey, the Badgers might win this game in a blowout!
  • 3:47: Michigan State picks up a pair of first downs but can't convert a third-and-14 and has to punt. At least its defense got a little bit of a breather, but if Wisconsin goes in for another score this one could get out of hand early.
  • 0:33: And we have our first Badgers mistake. After the offense drove to midfield, Wilson throws an interception to -- guess who? -- Robinson. It's only the second interception of the year for Wilson, who threw his other one on a meaningless play late in the Northern Illinois blowout. But I don't put this one entirely on him. Receiver Nick Toon appears to break the wrong way on the route, and he doesn't even start to look for the ball until it's nearly over his head. Remember that Toon missed the previous game with a foot injury he suffered two weeks earlier against Nebraska. He looked a little rusty/anxious, especially as he drew an uncharacteristic false start penalty later in the half. But the play was set up by a loss of 1 yard by James White on first down. The second-and-long prompted offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to put Wilson in the shotgun and not use play-action, allowing the safeties to stick in pass coverage. Even if Wilson and Toon had been on the same page, it was a low-percentage throw into double coverage, and that's not Wisconsin's game.
  • 0:26: I love, love, love the fact that Wilson sprints down the field and actually makes the tackle on Robinson, even though his form could use a little work.
  • 0:18: Michigan State, which has negative-9 rushing yards to this point, finally gets something going on the ground. The Spartans wide receivers blow up the right side of Wisconsin's defense, and Le'Veon Bell rushes 32 yards behind tackle Fou Fonoti, who's dying to find someone to block. Momentum seems to be changing.
[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Keshawn Martin
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREMichigan State's Keshawn Martin scores a 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Wisconsin.
Second quarter

  • 14:15: Kirk Cousins and Larry Caper can't quite connect for a screen pass on third-and-6, which was set up perfectly and might have resulted in an easy touchdown. The Spartans have another empty possession. But Bell's big run has flipped field position, leading to ...
  • 14:04: Mike Sadler punts the ball out of bounds at the Wisconsin 5. We didn't mention Sadler when we talked about freshmen of the year candidates in the Big Ten, but he has been a valuable weapon for Mark Dantonio all year long.
  • 13:58 to 13:10: Disaster strikes for Wisconsin. First, Jerel Worthy finally makes his presence felt, stuffing Ball for a 3-yard loss back to the 2. Then Wilson is called for intentional grounding in the end zone under heavy pressure from Denicos Allen. That's a safety, and it's now 14-2, Wisconsin. Chryst dialed up play-action again and looked to be going for a big throw over the top. But the call actually helped Michigan State, because the linebackers darted up field to stop the run. Ball has had an amazing season, but he whiffed on Allen to let "The Waterboy" get right to Wilson, who had little choice but to throw it away. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, there was no receiver on the side of the field where Wilson could get rid of the ball.
  • 11:22: Razzle, meet dazzle. After a beautiful throw from Cousins to tight end Brian Linthicum, Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar dials up some trickery. The Spartans line up in the I-formation. Cousins fakes a handoff to Bell, then hands it to receiver B.J. Cunningham on a reverse. Cunningham then pitches it to Keshawn Martin coming the other way. Wisconsin blitzed to the side Martin is now running toward, leaving no one left to tackle the Spartans' speedster except safety Aaron Henry. And he's sandwiched by three blockers. Martin scores from 34 yards out to make the score 14-9, Wisconsin. Martin has been on fire the latter part of this season.
  • 8:41: Wisconsin's offense mounts a good drive in response, and receiver Jared Abbrederis takes a jet sweep 21 yards. It's no coincidence that Abbrederis runs to the side where suspended defensive end William Gholston would have been. The Badgers have been attacking his replacement, Denzel Drone. Gholston's return is a big factor in this week's game.
  • 7:49 to 7:22: A tough sequence here for Ball. First, he misses another block, allowing cornerback Johnny Adams to blow up a play when he tackles Wilson from behind. Then he takes a Robinson shoulder to the head after a 7-yard run. Ball gets up from the tackle and then falls back down in a scary scene. He's escorted off the field and is given concussion tests on the sideline as Wisconsin fans hold their breath. Ball has 68 yards rushing and a touchdown when he goes out.
  • 6:42: On third-and-short from the Michigan State 14, White is stopped shy of the first down when Kyler Elsworth sheds a Pedersen block and makes the tackle. Great defensive play. No disrespect to White, but it makes you wonder if Ball would have gotten the extra few feet had he been in the game.
  • 5:55: Philip Welch's 30-yard field goal try is blocked by Darqueze Dennard, who ran in free from the left end. I'm not sure if Welch would have made the kick anyway, because Brad Nortman bobbled the snap, which disrupted the timing of the play. Wisconsin converted 62 of 65 trips in the red zone into points this season, second best in the FBS. But it comes up empty in a big spot here.
  • 1:40: Michigan State moves the ball down the field, but Baker is tackled for a loss to set up fourth-and-2 from the Wisconsin 35. Dantonio doesn't hesitate to go for it, and Roushar calls a great, if somewhat risky, play. Cousins waits for Cunningham to find a hole behind the linebackers in a long-developing route. But Wisconsin doesn't get any pressure on Cousins, and he hits Cunningham in the middle of three Badgers defenders. Taylor misses a tackle in a difficult matchup for him, and Cunningham is off for a touchdown to make it 16-14, Michigan State. It's the second straight year that Cunningham catches a fourth-down touchdown pass in a key spot. Think Wisconsin will know where he is if a big fourth down comes up again Saturday? The game's final play got all the attention, but this was just as big.
  • 0:45: Complete catastrophe for the Badgers. A fired up Spartans defense forces a three and out at Wisconsin 45, and then backup linebacker Ellsworth makes his second huge play of the game. He blocks Nortman's punt, and Bennie Fowler recovers the ball in the end zone to make it 23-14 Michigan State. The Spartans brought four defenders untouched up the middle against Wisconsin's three-man punt protection unit, and Ellsworth flew right by Robert Burge. In Burge's defense, middle protector Ryan Groy was slow to pick up his block, and Burge looked like he couldn't decide whether to chip Ellsworth or help on Kurtis Drummond right up the gut. "It was nothing special we haven't seen on film," Bret Bielema will tell Erin Andrews at halftime. "We've just got to block all four."
  • 0:00: The half mercifully ends for Wisconsin as Spartan Stadium is rocking. In a 15-minute span from the end of the first quarter to the final score of the half, the Badgers threw an interception, gave up a safety, had a field goal blocked, had a punt blocked for a touchdown, allowed a touchdown pass on fourth down and surrendered another score on a trick play. In basketball terms, it's a 23-0 spurt. Things can't get any worse for Wisconsin, or better for Michigan State. Can they?
Consider it an early Christmas gift for a league that could use some good tidings.

The inaugural Big Ten championship game allows the conference to put its best foot forward after a year where little went right.

A rough 2011 began, fittingly, on New Year's Day when the Big Ten went 0-5 in bowl games, including three double-digit losses to the dreaded SEC. It led many to call the day the worst in league history. While the label might be applicable to what happens on the field, the bad news for the Big Ten was only getting started. Ohio State's NCAA case blew up during the spring and early summer, and the Penn State sex-abuse scandal dominated the headlines for much of the past month.

The Big Ten needs to shift the spotlight and change the discussion. The title game provides a nice diversion.

It features Michigan State and Wisconsin, widely regarded as the Big Ten's top teams. The championship marks a rematch of arguably the most entertaining game of the college football season, which ended on a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired that lifted Michigan State to a 37-31 win Oct. 22. The Spartans and Badgers are emerging powers in the league and, unlike other potential title game participants, they have kept the championship week discussion to the happenings on the field rather than the controversy off of it.

"These are the two most deserving teams," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told "They both have play-makers, they both have great defenders, they've both been consistent, and they had an earlier game that was, if not the best game, one of the best games in the country this year.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
Mark A. Cunningham/Getty ImagesKirk Cousins is the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history.
"We're expecting a great inaugural game. Tremendous excitement."

Highlighting the game are the quarterbacks, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson. After a year where some of the Big Ten's more prominent players and coaches made headlines for the wrong reasons, the league couldn't have two better representatives for its signature game.

Cousins is the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history (26 victories) and has guided the Spartans to consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time. He holds team records for career touchdown passes (62), completion percentage (64.3) and passing efficiency (147.4). Cousins is just the second player in Spartans history to be named a team captain three times.

Despite all his success on the field and in the locker room, Cousins might be better known for his contributions elsewhere. He speaks to religious groups and volunteers at the local children's hospital. His riveting speech at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon in late July made national news.

"He's a very different type of person in terms of the normal college student you see," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "He can be on this phone call with [reporters] and speak to you like a college coach who's been coaching for 30 years. He can speak to presidents at universities, he can speak to the board of trustees, and then he can also go in the locker room and clown around with the players: black, white, walk-on, scholarship, starter, freshman, whatever it is. He just makes a smooth transition into every environment where he's speaking, whether it's the Big Ten luncheon or whether it's in the locker room.

"Those are the things that really become difference-makers for you in a position such as quarterback."

Dantonio added that in his three decades in coaching he's never seen a player with Cousins' adaptability as a leader.

"I'm just wired to be a relational person," Cousins said. "It's who I am. I would struggle in an environment where there aren't a great deal of relationships. I would struggle in a place where people aren't relational, and I would thrive and succeed in a place where people are open and friendly and communicating. I've learned a lot about myself in my five years here, and that's certainly one of the things I've learned.

"I succeed in a place that's a relational environment, and I've tried, as a quarterback and a leader on this team to make it that in the locker room, to be able to break down walls and build chemistry."

While Cousins had years to break down walls and build chemistry, Wilson has left his imprint at Wisconsin in just five months on campus. Just seven weeks after his arrival, Wilson was elected a co-captain by his teammates, a move that surprised him.

Wilson's impact on the field has been profound for a Badgers offense coming off of a record-setting season in 2010. The senior quarterback leads the nation in pass efficiency (192.9) and is on pace to break Colt Brennan's NCAA record (186). He already has set the team record for single-season touchdown passes (28) and has fired a scoring strike on every 9.3 pass attempts, a mark that leads the nation. A top Heisman Trophy candidate for the first half of the season, Wilson has given Wisconsin a new type of weapon at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Mary Langenfeld/US PresswireIn only five months on campus, Russell Wilson has made his presence known at Wisconsin.
Some have criticized Wisconsin for adding a "rent-a-quarterback" and questioned whether Wilson should have been allowed to transfer without sitting out a season, but Wilson has approached the opportunity the right way and has been an exemplary addition both on and off the field.

"The No. 1 thing that Russell brings to the table is consistency," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Whether it's football play, whether it's character, whether it's practice habits, preparation, execution, coming through in clutch situations ... everything about Russell Wilson is consistent."

One of Wilson's most important moments as a Badger didn't come on a Saturday, but rather after the team suffered back-to-back heartbreaking losses. Along with fellow captain Aaron Henry, Wilson asked the coaches to leave the locker room and held a players' meeting.

"If you love the game, you have to bring it every single day," Wilson said. "That's what I talked to the guys about. Forget all the noise and focus on what we need to focus on, and that's to play the best football we can play from here on out. I think we've done that. Everybody adjusted. Everybody made sure that we were on the same page.

"The communication this season has been great."

Amid the wild celebration at Spartan Stadium after Michigan State beat Wisconsin on Oct. 22, Cousins found Wilson on the field and delivered a message.

"I said, 'First of all, you're a class act and you're the real deal as a person and not just a football player," Cousins said. "Secondly, 'I think we're going to see you guys again. It was a tough battle here today, but it may not be the end of it.

"Both of us felt that would be the case, and here we are."

And after a rough year, the Big Ten is better off for it.
Wisconsin ranks third in the nation in defending the pass.

The Badgers are one of just five FBS teams allowing fewer than 10 yards per completion (9.97). They are one of only six FBS teams to allow fewer than 10 passing touchdowns (nine). They rank 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense and tie for second in the Big Ten with 14 interceptions. They boast two All-Big Ten selections in cornerback Antonio Fenelus and safety Aaron Henry.

But two images have defined the Wisconsin secondary in 2011. They are images that each say more than 1,000 words, many of them unprintable, at least when Badgers fans are doing the talking.

The first: a Hail Mary pass from Michigan State's Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol as time expired to lift Michigan State to a 37-31 win against Wisconsin on Oct. 22. It resulted in Wisconsin's first loss.

[+] EnlargeKeith Nichol
Andrew Weber/US PresswireThe Badgers say they will be better prepared the next time they are in a Hail Mary situation.
The second: An on-the-run heave from Ohio State's Braxton Miller to Devin Smith for a 40-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left. It lifted the Buckeyes to a 33-29 win against Wisconsin, which had taken the lead seconds earlier on a long touchdown pass of its own.

If Wisconsin knocks down the two passes, the team finds itself right in the thick of the national championship race. Instead, the two plays serve as reminders of what might have been. They also have heightened the focus for Badgers defensive backs heading into the Big Ten championship game Saturday against Michigan State.

"Those two plays that stand out are going to be used as one of two things," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "You can either take them as a failure. That means that you just never learn from it and never going to move forward. Or you can take a negative situation and turn it into a positive, which I think they've done."

Since the Ohio State game Wisconsin has allowed just 121.5 pass yards a game and only two total touchdowns. The Badgers have intercepted seven passes during the span.

"We're extremely motivated," Henry said. "It really boils down to every snap counts. You can hear somebody say, 'Every snap counts,' and a team can play 70 great snaps and on the 71st snap, it's a Hail Mary or it's a touchdown. We've just got to go out there and play every snap like it's our last."

Henry admitted the Badgers likely would have to relive the Hail Mary throughout championship week as they prepare to face Michigan State again. Bielema said, "It was a great highlight on ESPN for about three weeks there. I swear, it was on every commercial. It was kind of forced on you."

But Wisconsin's defensive backs already addressed the play in their meetings. They hadn't faced a Hail Mary situation quite like the one at Michigan State before, and they expect to be better prepared should another arise.

"Ever since that moment, we practice 'victory' defense," Fenelus said. "We're ready for it, if it comes down to that. ... We learned from our mistakes and Coach puts stress on us to stay deep, especially in end-of-game situations like that."

Wisconsin's secondary had a breakdown early in Saturday's game against Penn State, as Henry left the middle to help cover an outside receiver, leaving Curtis Drake wide open for an easy 44-yard touchdown. But after that point the Badgers tightened up significantly, allowing just 62 pass yards the rest of the game. Safety Shelton Johnson also recorded an interception as the Badgers blew out Penn State 45-7.

The secondary needs a strong effort against a Michigan State offense hitting its stride in the pass game. Michigan State has racked up 1,094 pass yards and 10 touchdowns in its previous four games. Spartans senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who racked up 290 pass yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Wisconsin on Oct. 22, appears to be playing his best football entering the title game.

But mindful of its past failures, Wisconsin will be ready.

"Unfortunately, we lost two games like that, pretty much," Henry said. "It was definitely a learning experience. We don't want to go out like that again."

Final: Wisconsin 28, Illinois 17

November, 19, 2011
Montee Ball and the Wisconsin Badgers weren't about to let the Leaders Division slip through their fingers again.

After an uninspired first half that featured just 99 yards, the Badgers came alive and blitzed a mistake-prone Illinois team in the final 30 minutes. Wisconsin's 28-17 win means the Leaders title will be decided next week when it hosts Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium. Ohio State and Purdue are eliminated from the race.

Ball continued his assault on the record books with 38 carries for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He added a 5-yard reception to cap an insanely difficult 12 play, 30-yard drive. The junior had 77 rushing yards in a huge third quarter and added a 17-yard touchdown run early in the fourth as Wisconsin's offense caught fire.

Ball now has 30 touchdowns on the season, becoming just the fifth player in NCAA history to reach the mark. Right now, he's the best offensive player in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. Heisman, anyone? He should at least be in the mix.

It wasn't a typical performance for Wisconsin's offense or senior quarterback Russell Wilson, who had just 90 pass yards, but the Badgers will take the win and move on.

Illinois became Illinois in the second half as mistakes once again piled up for Ron Zook's team. The Illini survived their lone miscue in the first half, a fumbled snap on a punt, but they imploded in the second half. Illinois committed turnovers on three of its first four possessions and went three-and-out on the other. Wisconsin defensive backs Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry picked off Reilly O'Toole, who surprisingly got more playing time than Nathan Scheelhaase after the break. Scheelhaase, by the way, threw a late interception to end Illinois' comeback hopes. Illinois still had a scoreless half, but this time it was the second, not the first. Ugh.

The Illini dropped their fifth consecutive game after their best start (6-0) since 1951. Whether Zook needed a win today to keep his job remains to be seen, but he can't be feeling too comfortable going into the final week of the regular season.

This would have been a devastating loss for Wisconsin, which hasn't looked the same away from Madison. Now the Badgers have a chance to win the division on their home field, although they'll need a more polished performance against Penn State's defense.