NCF Nation: Jay Valai
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.
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."
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.
"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."
As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
Michigan soil might as well be quicksand for the Badgers.
But the failures of the past haven't gone for naught. They are part of Wisconsin's history, coach Bret Bielema says, just like all the triumphs during the program's renaissance since 1993.
After Wisconsin ended its Michigan misfortune with a 48-28 victory Saturday, Bielema said of his players: "They taste it, they believe it."
Asked when that process began, Bielema didn't hesitate.
"Michigan State," the coach said.
Really? The Badgers' only loss of the season? The game where they couldn't capitalize on Spartans turnovers or stop Michigan State in clutch situations? The road loss that had looked like so many others under Bielema?
"Maybe going into that game, I don't know if every kid in that room believed how special this team could be," Bielema said. "But I know leaving that locker room, they knew they could be."
Bielema isn't the only one who feels this way. Senior guard John Moffitt has brought up the Michigan State loss in conversations with his dad.
"You want to look at it and you want to say, 'You know something? Without that loss, maybe we wouldn't have been jump-started the way that we have been, and we wouldn't have respected the game as much as we do now,'" Moffitt said. "And even more so, we took it upon ourselves to turn it around."
Boy, have they ever.
Wisconsin is the hottest team in the Big Ten and one of the hottest in the country. The Badgers on Saturday extended their win streak to six games with a performance that encapsulated their identity: past, present and future.
Never was this more the case than early in the third quarter.
The normally disciplined Badgers committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and watched their 24-0 lead trimmed to 24-14. The last time Wisconsin visited Ann Arbor, in 2008, it blew a 19-0 lead as Michigan mounted the biggest comeback in stadium history, one from which the Badgers never truly recovered. And unlike in 2008, Michigan boasts a quick-strike offense and the Big Ten's most exciting player in quarterback Denard Robinson.
So how did the Badgers respond to their predicament?
They ran the ball. Then they ran it again. And again. And again.
Wisconsin called 28 consecutive running plays. Add in a Scott Tolzien scramble on the front end and two kneel-downs on the back end, and that's 31 straight rushes.
"We were setting 'em up for play-action," Bielema joked.
Although offensive coordinator Paul Chryst calls the plays, Bielema delivered a message to his top assistant in the third quarter: "They can't stop your run game, point blank. There wasn't anything they could do to slow that down."
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."
But he'd never experienced this: swarms of students descending on the field at Camp Randall Stadium after a signature win, grabbing players "in bad spots," as he'd later say.
Valai, who follows college football as closely as any other player in the country, felt like he'd been missing out.
"Every year, like a wrestling match, we look like we're about to win," the Wisconsin senior safety said. "It's like, '1-2,' and then they knock us out."
That's when director of football operations Mark Taurisani approached him.
"He said, 'If they rush the field, go out the far tunnel,'" Bielema recalled. "I'm like, 'Well, you better tell everybody else the same thing.'
"We hadn't exactly gone through an evacuation plan."
Wisconsin didn't have a need for one before Saturday night. These were the games the Badgers had lost for the past decade, the ones separating a very good program from once again reaching elite status.
Wisconsin hadn't defeated a No. 1 team since 1981 (Michigan), but the more significant burden fell on Bielema, who had yet to beat Ohio State in his career and boasted a record that looked stylish (43-15) but lacked substance (1-8 vs. ranked Big Ten opponents). The Badgers' first meeting with a ranked team this fall -- a Week 5 trip to Michigan State -- ended like so many others in recent memory, with a lackluster performance and a loss.
"We always hear we can't beat the big-name teams," Valai said. "The only ranked team we've beat the last couple years has been Miami. We came out with the mentality of us vs. the world."
Wisconsin players didn't let their past failures impact their preparation for Saturday.
They knew of Ohio State's No. 1 ranking -- Bielema mentioned it in the team meeting last Sunday -- but they didn't dwell on what it meant. They sensed the buildup to the game in a town that feeds on hype and excitement, but they didn't get drunk with anticipation.
"That is the challenge," said defensive end J.J. Watt, who twice sacked Terrelle Pryor and recorded three tackles for loss. "We had the No. 1 team in the country coming in here, and it's easy to get excited. You've got 'College GameDay' and everything around, but when you can go in there calm and collected and do your job, great things will happen.
"And obviously, tonight, great things happened."
To prepare for the Buckeyes, the Badgers focused on themselves and their bedrock values, the same values that propelled them from good to great under Barry Alvarez in the 1990s.
We're talking about controlling the line of scrimmage, the power run game, offensive efficiency, limiting big plays and major mistakes. Standard stuff for Wisconsin football.
The Badgers delivered early, slicing through the heart of Ohio State's defense on their first possession. And the Badgers delivered late, marching 73 yards on 10 plays in a game-defining touchdown drive after Ohio State had rallied to within three points.
"It's justification for me that we are doing the right thing," Bielema said. "What we do 365 days a year, you saw today, and I know it could be successful. As we build our program with recruiting and the constant belief about what we're all about, it solidifies it that much more."
Wisconsin won the game the Wisconsin way, which hasn't shown up enough in the national spotlight. During the week, Bielema challenged his offensive line, which had been billed as one of the nation's best before the season but hadn't performed like it.
More motivation arrived Friday when running back John Clay showed up with a new haircut: he had the jersey numbers of each of the starting linemen shaved into his head.
"I knew this was going to be a big game for us," Clay said, "so I told them when this game comes around, I'm going to do something special."
The linemen were the ones who did something special, completely dominating Cameron Heyward and the Ohio State defensive front. Wisconsin racked up 184 rushing yards and three rush touchdowns; the Buckeyes had allowed three rushing touchdowns all season before Saturday night.
The line also prevented a sack or a quarterback hurry, and Scott Tolzien delivered, completing 13 of 16 passes, six to junior wideout Nick Toon.
"There was just a feeling this week," senior guard John Moffitt said, "and I even felt it today: I was nervous, but I was also very settled. I just felt right about things. That comes from doing the right things and preparing the right way.
"That's how you win games."
By rededicating themselves to what put their program on the map, the Badgers won a very big game.
"Everybody has things they believe in," Bielema said. "When you say them over and over, and when kids finally see the results of that, that's when you can gain ground."
Today, the back four are answering the call. The Badgers already have an interception from cornerback Antonio Fenelus, a forced fumble by cornerback Niles Brinkley and a fumble recovery by safety Aaron Henry. Wisconsin forced another Michigan State field goal thanks to big hits from Henry and fellow safety Jay Valai, who has returned to the field after being shaken up in the first quarter.
Michigan State's offense is making plays here and there, but the Badgers' secondary has kept Kirk Cousins and co. out of the end zone. Wisconsin lacks a true shut-down secondary, but if the Badgers can generate takeaways and lay some big hits, they'll be in good shape today.
Michigan State's defense also looks good so far, especially Greg Jones.
Wisconsin leads 10-6 with 8:27 left in the first half.
But last Saturday, special-teams breakdowns became a full-blown epidemic around the Big Ten.
Recapping the lowlights:
- Iowa had a punt blocked deep in its own territory, setting up an Arizona touchdown. The Hawkeyes later allowed a 100-yard kick return for another Wildcats touchdown.
- Wisconsin surrendered a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown against Arizona State and nearly gave up another before Shelton Johnson tripped up return man Kyle Middlebrooks at the 1-yard line as the second quarter expired.
- Minnesota claimed a 14-13 lead against USC midway through the third quarter, only to relinquish it 12 seconds later when USC's Robert Woods raced 97 yards to the end zone on the ensuing kickoff.
- Michigan had a punt blocked and missed a field goal, making the Wolverines 1 for 5 on field goal attempts this season.
- Ohio State crushed Ohio but still had a punt blocked. It was the latest special-teams error for the Buckeyes, who had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown in the opener against Marshall and surrendered both a kick return touchdown and a punt return touchdown against Miami in Week 2.
The scope of the problems is surprising, given the Big Ten's reputation as a league that drills home fundamentals. Big Ten teams rank near the bottom of the national rankings in both punt coverage (Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan) and kickoff coverage (Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota).
"A lot of times it's your next-level players, your 1-B's, [special teams is] their role," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Early in the season, you're going to get some growing pains as they go through their first experiences. It's one-on-one battles where you have to do your job and 100 percent of what is asked of you."
Ohio State's woes have been the most surprising, given Jim Tressel's reputation as one of the nation's best coaches in stressing the kicking game. But Tressel entered the season concerned about the Buckeyes' inexperience at some spots in the special-teams units.
"If there's one error in a special team, all of a sudden it can look disastrous," Tressel said, "whether it's a guy not blocking someone and they come in and block your punt, or a guy getting knocked out of his lane on a kickoff and all of a sudden, they've got a fast guy running through a hole. So there's a learning curve."
"There's no way to rush it," Tressel continued. "You can practice things all you want, but you certainly don't spend all afternoon in practice running down full speed on kickoff and smashing into each other. I just think it takes a little bit of time and understanding for all parties involved."
Wisconsin squeaked out a win against Arizona State based on two great individual plays on special teams: Johnson's tackle on kickoff coverage and Jay Valai's blocked kick on a potential game-tying PAT attempt late in the fourth quarter. Michigan State made the play of the day in college football on special teams, as punter/holder Aaron Bates threw a touchdown pass in overtime on a fake field goal attempt to beat Notre Dame.
But all too often, the one-on-one matchups are being lost.
During Wisconsin's team meeting Sunday, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema pointed out the league-wide special teams issues in games like Iowa-Arizona and Ohio State-Miami.
"I wanted to make our guys understand it's not just a problem here, but it's something we need to remedy," Bielema said. "There's 85 scholarship players at every Big Ten school. Of those 85 guys, you've got five or six specialists -- punters, kickers and snappers -- who are recruited there and given scholarships just to do [special teams]. The other 80 guys, they're not recruited to be the right guard on punt team or the left tackle on kickoff return.
"They want to get on the field and play football. You have to change their thinking and make them understand ... this position also is very important."
As I detailed before the season, Borland is the type of player you rarely find in today's college football. The Wisconsin sophomore linebacker might have fared better in the leather-helmet era, when men played 60 minutes and participated in all three phases of the game, stiff-arming specialization.
It's why Tuesday's announcement that Borland will miss the remainder of the season because of recurring shoulder problems is such a blow for the Badgers. You could see this coming after Borland reinjured his surgically repaired left shoulder for the second time in three games Saturday against Arizona State. Coach Bret Bielema mentioned after the game that Borland had a redshirt year available, a telltale sign that the standout linebacker might not be back.
Wisconsin is definitely making the right call to preserve Borland's long-term health -- he should have no trouble earning a medical hardship and will retain three years of eligibility -- but the short-term impact is significant.
“After talking with our training staff and with Chris, we decided that the best thing for Chris was to shut him down for the rest of the year,” Bielema said in a prepared statement. “Obviously, Chris is a tremendous player and a ferocious competitor, but after looking at all the options, everyone agreed this was the only option for him.”
Borland's departure places a greater burden on linebackers Culmer St. Jean, Mike Taylor and Blake Sorensen to not only produce, but to stay healthy. Sorensen had a strong preseason and has carried it over into the first three games, recording 16 tackles and an interception. Wisconsin also needs second-stringers like Kevin Claxton to step up.
The Badgers missed Borland for most of the game against Arizona State, which had success running up the middle. Wisconsin is fairly unproven at defensive tackle, so the linebackers and veteran safeties Jay Valai and Aaron Henry really need to help in run-stopping.
Borland also was a major factor on special teams as a freshman, and Wisconsin will miss his presence on those units.
Wisconsin will be a lot better off when Borland returns in 2011. But for a team with legit Big Ten title hopes this season, this really stings.
Team of the Week: Michigan State. After suffering a series of close losses in the past three years, Michigan State finally turned the tables -- against one of its top rivals, no less. A seesaw game featured some offensive fireworks on both sides, and for certain stretches, Michigan State achieved the type of offensive balance that could make it very dangerous when Big Ten play rolls around. But the Spartans once again seemed to wilt in the clutch as quarterback Kirk Cousins took some costly sacks. Notre Dame regained the momentum late in regulation and in overtime, but Michigan State changed everything with a gutsy fake field goal call that resulted in the game-winning 29-yard touchdown pass. Although coach Mark Dantonio's health setback put the celebration on pause, Michigan State has an opportunity to build off this win.
Biggest play: Isn't it obvious by now? No one expected the fake field goal, especially from a typically conservative coach like Dantonio. It was the right call at the right time and Bates, a former high school quarterback, deserves credit for going to his second read after Le'Veon Bell was covered. If Michigan State goes on to have a big season, we'll all point to this play. Wisconsin also received two huge special-teams plays from safeties Shelton Johnson and Jay Valai. Johnson tripped up Arizona State kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks at the 1-yard line as the second quarter clock expired, saving six points and a huge momentum swing going into halftime. The 5-foot-9 Valai showed off his hops by blocking the potential game-tying PAT attempt with 4:09 left as Wisconsin won 20-19.
Specialist spotlight: Bates had a huge night against Notre Dame, and his game-winning pass to Gantt overshadowed his prowess as a punter, as he averaged 45.4 yards on eight punts. Illinois punter Anthony Santella leads the nation in punting average (48.9 ypg) after averaging 48.7 yards per boot on Saturday against Northern Illinois. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts against Rice, and Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman averaged 43 yards on four punts and had one downed inside the 5-yard line against Arizona State.
Game balls (given to players from winning teams not selected for helmet stickers):
- Wisconsin TE Lance Kendricks: Kendricks knew he'd have to step up Saturday as Wisconsin played without two of its top receivers (Nick Toon and David Gilreath). The senior tight end looked like a wide receiver again as he hauled in seven receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown, even though he was interfered with in the end zone. He shares the game ball with quarterback Scott Tolzien (19-25 passing, 246 yards, 1 TD).
- Michigan RB Michael Shaw: Denard Robinson didn't have to do it all against UMass as Shaw racked up career highs in both rushing yards (126) and touchdowns (3) on only 12 carries. He shares the game ball with Robinson, who had another big day, and receiver Darryl Stonum (3 receptions, 121 yards, 2 TDs).
- Ohio State LB Ross Homan: Homan has carried over his stellar play from 2009 and continues to become one of the league's top defensive playmakers. The senior had seven solo tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against Ohio. Kudos also go to fellow Buckeyes defender Tyler Moeller, who recorded his first career interception, a forced fumble and 1.5 tackles for loss.
- Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: Bell is the early leader for Big Ten Freshman of the Year after recording his second 100-yard rushing performance in his first three collegiate games. The big man rumbled for 114 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Notre Dame. He shares the game ball with receiver B.J. Cunningham (7 receptions, 101 yards, TD) and fellow back Edwin Baker (14 carries, 90 rush yards, TD).
- Northwestern LB Quentin Davie: The senior leads the Big Ten in interceptions after recording his third -- a pick-six, no less -- in Saturday night's blowout win at Rice. Davie recorded a game-high 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and a pass breakup. He shares the game ball with defensive linemen Vince Browne, Corbin Bryant and Jack DiNardo, who combined for 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
- Purdue WR Cortez Smith: The Boilers need a No. 1 receiver to emerge after losing Keith Smith, and Cortez Smith looks reads to fill the void. He recorded five receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Ball State. He'll share the game ball with defenders Gerald Gooden (5 tackles, forced fumble, pass breakup), Kawann Short (two pass breakups, blocked PAT) and Jason Werner (INT, 1 TFL).
OK, moving on to Week 4. Do we have to? I know it's my job to get your excited for Big Ten football 24-7-365, but this week provides a major challenge, to say the least.
Northern Colorado (2-1) at Michigan State (3-0): Spartans offensive coordinator Don Treadwell takes over the head-coaching duties from Mark Dantonio, who suffered a mild heart attack following the Notre Dame win. The Spartans look for a more complete defensive performance before Wisconsin visits on Oct. 2.
Central Michigan (2-1) at Northwestern (3-0): Northwestern aims for its second perfect nonconference mark in the past three seasons after going 35 years with at least one non-league loss. Central Michigan should test Davie and the Wildcats' defense, which has forced nine turnovers in the first three games.
Bowling Green (1-2) at Michigan (3-0): The Wolverines' sputtering defense likely won't face Falcons starting quarterback Matt Schilz, who isn't expected to play because of a shoulder injury. Michigan's offense will light up the scoreboard, but the D has to get better before Big Ten play.
Austin Peay (2-1) at Wisconsin (3-0): Yawn. If Wisconsin can't dominate the Governors (ello, guvna!), Badgers fans should get worried. This provides a good chance for the Badgers to assess their depth on both sides of the ball.
Ball State (1-2) at Iowa (2-1): Although the Cardinals hung in there at Purdue, Iowa should have no trouble Saturday. The bigger question is whether the Hawkeyes can clean up their play in the kicking game, on the offensive line and in the secondary after the Arizona loss.
Toledo (2-1) at Purdue (2-1): Quarterback Robert Marve's left knee injury doesn't appear to be serious, and the Boilers need to get No. 9 through this game and into the bye week without further setbacks. Arizona shredded Toledo's defense in the season opener, and Purdue should have opportunities to further develop a receiving corps missing star Keith Smith.
Eastern Michigan (0-3) at Ohio State (3-0): The Buckeyes could score 70 in this one. I'm not kidding. Eastern Michigan has surrendered 111 points in its first three games.
Temple (3-0) at Penn State (2-1): This is the most interesting game in the Big Ten. Temple heads to State College with a ton of confidence as coach Al Golden might be auditioning for the Nittany Lions' faithful. Penn State's running back race now is open as slumping senior Evan Royster tries to hold off junior Stephfon Green and dynamic freshman Silas Redd. Should be a good one in Happy Valley.
Akron (0-3) at Indiana (2-0): Ben Chappell and the Hoosiers' offense likely will carve up another bad team Saturday, as Akron has been blown out by Syracuse and Kentucky and lost at home to Gardner-Webb (ouch). The bigger question is whether the Hoosiers' defense can shut down the Zips.
Northern Illinois (1-2) at Minnesota (1-2): It's must-win time for embattled coach Tim Brewster and his Golden Gophers, who performed a lot better Saturday against USC but still couldn't finish off a good team. Northern Illinois will test Minnesota's new-look defense with quarterback Chandler Harnish, and Minnesota needs to reignite the run game despite Duane Bennett's ankle issues.
Bye: Illinois (2-1)
It's Monday so that means it's time to vote for the Capital One Impact Performance of the Week.
Here are your nominees:
Michigan State's Aaron Bates' touchdown pass on a fake field goal against Notre Dame.
Missouri's Blaine Gabbert's 68-yard touchdown pass against San Diego State.
Arkansas' Ryan Mallett's 40-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds remaining.
Wisconsin's Jay Valai blocks Arizona State extra point for 20-19 win
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State