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Special teams struggle, shine against ASU

September 19, 2010

MADISON – Every play matters.

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has worked to instill that mentality in his players, and on Saturday, those players provided him with two perfect examples in big moments.

While the Badgers special teams units struggled in coverage for the most part against Arizona State, two big plays on special teams made all the difference as UW came out on top, 20-19, over Arizona State.

“It’s the difference between good and bad today,” Bielema said. “Every season I reflect back on, there’s a handful of plays that determine a game, that determine a season.”

Following a touchdown that put Wisconsin up 13-10, Sun Devils returner Kyle Middlebrooks took a Philip Welch kickoff from the 4-yard line and raced for the end zone. With no one in front of him, Middlebrooks looked as though he would score to put ASU back on top heading into the locker room.

Enter Shelton Johnson.

After Dezmen Southward slowed Middlebrooks down, Johnson caught him from behind and made the tackle at the 1-yard line, saving a touchdown as the clock ran out on the first half.

“Honestly, I was just running hoping that I could get him,” Johnson said.

The play was remarkably similar to one late in the first quarter, when cornerback Omar Bolden took a Welch kickoff back 97 yards for the touchdown, putting Arizona State up 7-3.

So what was Johnson thinking when it looked to be happening again?

“No, don’t let this happen again,” Johnson said. “That would’ve been the second of the game, and it would have been really deflating going into halftime.”

Johnson’s tackle kept the Badgers up three points at the half, but more importantly, it meant John Clay’s third quarter touchdown put them up 20-13, rather than tying the game at 20 apiece. That proved crucial late in the fourth quarter, when the Sun Devils found the end zone for their only offensive touchdown of the game.

With 4:09 remaining, running back Cameron Marshall ran it in from two yards out, which appeared to tie the game for the second time. Instead, the extra point proved to be the deciding factor in game.

Looking to preserve their lead, the Badgers called for a block scheme they had not used yet this season. It worked out, as senior safety Jay Valai got around the left end and made the most of his 5-foot-9 frame, knocking the kick offline on an all-out dive.

“The PAT block is normally unheard of in college football,” said ASU head coach Dennis Erickson. “In all my career, I’ve never seen something like that. The bottom line is they got someone through.”

It’s hard to argue against the two plays made by Johnson and Valai as being among the biggest of the day for the Badgers.

The two players involved did disagree, however, on who made the more important play.

“Probably Jay’s,” Johnson answered when asked which play was bigger. “If he didn’t make that play, we’re probably still playing right now. I definitely think Jay blocking that kick was a huge, huge impact on this game.”

Valai, on the other hand, preferred his teammate’s touchdown-saving tackle to close out the Badgers’ less-than-stellar first half.

“Shelton’s just being nice — that’s a touchdown,” Valai said. “That’s not one point, Shelton stopped six, seven points right there. Shelton Johnson made a great play, that’s the biggest play of the game.”

The key to both plays, though, was effort.

Once Middlebrooks got into the open field, Johnson and Southward easily could have packed it in and headed to the locker room. In the fourth quarter, Valai could have accepted the Sun Devils were going to tie the game and 20 points apiece and put the burden on the offense to come away with the victory.

Instead, both put together the kind of effort expected out of them by the Wisconsin coaching staff, and in the end, it paid huge dividends.

“Football is a game that is comprised of four quarters, 15 minutes each, 60 minutes of playing time,” Bielema said. “But really it’s 60 minutes of reaction, who reacts better to what happens.”

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