MADISON – Last season, in his first year as the Badgers’ starting quarterback, Scott Tolzien turned in his worst performances in consecutive weeks against Ohio State and Iowa, the Big Ten’s two toughest defenses.
A year later, Tolzien has recorded back-to-back strong performances while guiding his team to Wisconsin’s two biggest wins since head coach Bret Bielema took over the program. In particular, Tolzien’s response to interceptions has been a key difference.
“I think I just played within myself more this year and didn’t force things,” Tolzien said. “I just took what the defense was giving me and just tried to be patient and not trying to make too many plays when the situation didn’t call for it.
“A year of experience is big if you take it the right way and learn from your past experiences. Having an extra year under my belt helped a lot.”
In 2010, Tolzien threw two crucial pick sixes in Columbus, while being intercepted three more times in a winnable game against Iowa at home a week later. This year, Tolzien was picked off by each team once, but responded admirably both times.
That difference has not gone unnoticed by his head coach, either.
“I’ve seen his response to his two interceptions be about as positive as you can,” Bielema said. “I noticed at one point, I believe it was second down on the series that actually got to four downs on the last drive, and after second down he was clapping his hands. He smacked somebody on the back. He knew he was going to have success.
“That’s the part that’s probably separated him, in my mind. I always knew he was great. He’s always going to have great academics. He’s always going to say the right things. He’s always going to do the right things. But when things are hard or when you have a bad play, how are you going to respond?”
After being intercepted in the second quarter last week against Ohio State while leading 21-3, Tolzien responded by not turning the ball over again, while also leading his team on a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives.
Trailing 27-24 in Iowa City, Tolzien was intercepted on a misguided first-down pass, which led to a Hawkeyes field goal and put UW down 30-24 with 8:35 remaining in the game. On the next drive, Tolzien completed 3 of 5 passes while also rushing for six yards.
More importantly, he guided the Badgers down the field, 80 yards for the game winning touchdown run by running back Montee Ball. After Tolzien’s mistake played a major factor in consecutive losses last season, his poise and ability to continue to make plays after throwing an interception was integral in two major Wisconsin victories.
“We got a win, and I thought I played good enough to give us a chance to win,” Tolzien said. “That’s kind of a simple statement, but I think really that’s how quarterbacks are measured is getting wins. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty and sometimes you’ve got to put more on your shoulders, but whatever the case may be, you’ve got to win.
“I’m not going to downplay it. It’s huge because it’s two big wins in the Big Ten, and to beat two tough opponents like that, it’s pretty gratifying.”
MADISON – If you asked Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, he’d tell you the truest test of a defense is its effort on extra-point tries after giving up a touchdown.
That being the case, J.J. Watt‘s extraordinary effort following Iowa’s first touchdown of the game Saturday proved to be the difference in the game. As Watt batted away the Hawkeyes’ extra-point attempt, he allowed his team to win by the slimmest of margins, 31-30, at Kinnick Stadium.
“This is two weeks now that this Watt fellow has played lights out,” former Ohio State coach John Cooper, who is one of the Legends Coaches that votes on the award, said in a statement. “He blocks an extra point and later sacks the quarterback to drive Iowa out of field goal range at the end and Wisconsin wins by a single point. That’s performing under pressure.”
In that Badgers victory, Watt recorded one sack, two tackles for loss, and five total tackles, to go along with his blocked extra point.
For his efforts, Watt was recognized for the second straight week as the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week. The Lott, named after Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, is awarded to college football’s Defensive IMPACT Player of the Year.
Additionally, Watt took home Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Iowa, while also being named the Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week.
“It’s awesome, it’s very cool,” Watt said of the recognition. “I was just back home yesterday in Pewaukee and I was thinking about when I was super excited to be all-Woodland Conference, and now I’m getting these national defensive player of the week awards.
“It’s unbelievable to see where it’s come, but all the credit has to go to my teammates. If you don’t win football games, you’re not going to get awards like that.”
While his numbers against Iowa don’t exactly stand out on the stat sheet, Watt’s impact could also be seen in the Hawkeyes’ game plan, which was designed to avoid the junior defensive end from Pewaukee, Wis.
“They were doing some things, I think, to get away from J.J. just as much as anything,” Bielema said. “But you know, we do some things with him. He’s all over the place. He plays all four D-line positions, so it’s kind of hard to gauge where he’s going to be all the time.
“Now 1st and 10 would be a little bit different, but I always tell our coaches, and our players, that is a true sign of respect when somebody starts noticeably game planning around, to avoid you or, on the flip side of it, if they’re trying to find you, is another way to look at it.”
With the efforts of Iowa to avoid as well as double- and triple-teaming Watt, it took extra effort from Watt just to put up the five tackles and one sack he did manage.
While he did only have a single sack in the game, it also came at a crucial moment, as he brought down Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi for an 11-yard loss with just 26 seconds remaining in the game.
Stanzi and the Hawkeyes were forced to call timeout, which proved crucial on the final play of the game, when they ran out of time after failing to reach the sideline to stop the clock.
“If you outwork your opponent, you’re going to get opportunities,” Watt said. “We could definitely use a little bit more pressure, but we got to him when it counted.”
MADISON – When the 2010 season opened, the Wisconsin Badgers experimented with offensive lineman Ryan Groy at fullback. As a result, junior Bradie Ewing was forced into a role as more of a spectator as he saw his playing time limited.
Ewing didn’t sit back and accept his role, however. Instead, his recent performance would suggest he used the coaching staff’s decision to start Groy over him as motivation to improve.
“My guess is, if you asked him, he probably took it a little personal when No. 47 started lining up,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “Bradie Ewing is an unbelievable kid. He is so strong mentally that I think when that situation came up, he knew what he needed to do to get on the field, and he’s playing.”
Ewing did not start a game this season until the Badgers’ fifth of the season, at Michigan State. A week earlier against Austin Peay, the native of Richland Center, Wis., added his first two touchdowns of the season, one rushing and one receiving.
In four Big Ten games, Ewing has caught three passes – one each against Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa – for 18 yards. Against the Hawkeyes, he added his third touchdown of the season, which put Wisconsin up 10-6 at the time.
Even with Ewing’s offensive production going up, Bielema remains, and understandably so, more impressed with his improvement in blocking.
“Two things that probably have cleaned it up for me, for him, that I’ve witnessed,” Bielema said, “he’s playing very mean, he’s very aggressive in what he’s doing, and he’s probably learned to block on the move a lot better.
“When you’re a running back or he’s used to running the football, he hadn’t really ever trained or been coached up on making blocks while you’re moving, and that’s a unique thing. It’s a lot easier said than done, and he’s gotten really good at that.”
With his high school career featuring Ewing running the ball out of the backfield more than blocking for others, the move to fullback has been an adjustment. Looking at Ewing, you would never expect a mean streak out of the clean cut, 6-foot, 234-pound running back who looks more Boy Scout than football player.
As a result, developing that aggressiveness has taken some time as well for Ewing. Lately, especially with his performance against top defensive linemen from Ohio State and Iowa, a lack of aggressiveness is far from the case with Ewing.
“Bradie is, he’s Mr. Wisconsin. I mean, he probably could be the Governor here at some point in his life,” Bielema said. “He’s smart, good looking, family is great people, but it took him awhile to learn how to become mean. I’m sure he wasn’t – I know he has one sister, maybe two sisters – he probably wasn’t wrestling with them in the backyard. I mean, he wasn’t a guy that maybe grew up and had to be tough or aggressive.
“Since he’s come here, it was last Thursday, I mean, a Thursday practice, and the defense had already gone in, and there’s a fight, there’s a scuffle. I’m like, ‘What, who’s doing that? Nobody fights on Thursdays.’
“Bradie was mixing it up, I think, with one of the linebackers. I don’t know if it was [Michael] Trotter or [Josh] Harrison, but I was just chuckling to myself because it was a Thursday, we’re in half-pack practice, and Bradie’s getting in a fight.”
IOWA CITY — When talking about his football team, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema likes to say that it’s not what happens, but how you react to what happens. You can’t react much better than the Badgers did Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Two days before a pivotal Big Ten matchup with Iowa on the road, Bielema alluded to a number of veteran players that might not be able to go against the Hawkeyes. Come game time, Bielema and the Badgers found themselves without two key players: Nick Toon and Jordan Kohout.
“Brian [Lucas] hit me up early this morning and wanted to confirm the starting lineups, and I basically said ‘I wish I knew,'” Bielema said. “There was as much as seven of our starters that weren’t sure who was going to play or go or not.”
Even with all of that, the 10th-ranked Badgers came away with a 31-30 victory over the 12th-ranked Hawkeyes, putting themselves in excellent position in the Big Ten title race in the process.
“Iowa is a great team, and they had a great defensive four up front,” Gabe Carimi said. “We came out there and attacked it and got a ‘W’.”
With Kendricks out, tight ends Jacob Pedersen and Jake Byrne stepped up, grabbing four balls for a combined 42 yards. In place of Konz, the Badgers shuffled the offensive line without missing a beat, moving Bill Nagy from tight end to center.
But at no position was there a more impressive replacement than in the backfield.
Relegated to third on the depth chart with the emergence of White, sophomore Montee Ball‘s opportunities have been few and far between this season. But when called upon in a big moment, Ball reacted better than anyone could have expected.
“I stay ready and kept my mind right,” Ball said. “I’m very proud. I had a talk with [running backs] coach [John] Settle, and I told him that I was going to leave it in God’s hands. God has a plan for me and I just felt like it happened today.”
Carrying the ball three times, Ball picked up 18 crucial yards on the ground in the game. More importantly, he broke the plane of the goal line just enough for the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
With the effort of those called upon to step up in critical situations, the Badgers were able to play the game the way they wanted to, which included a number of bold moves by the head coach.
Trailing 13-10 and facing 4th-and-1 on the Hawkeyes’ 2-yard line in the third quarter, the Badgers opted against the game-tying field goal. Instead, they went for it, and one of two Clay touchdown runs put them back on top, 17-13.
Later in the game, with UW trailing 30-24 late in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin got the look they were hoping to see from the Iowa defense on fourth down. The fake punt call was on, and punter Brad Nortman rushed for 17 yards, sending the momentum in the Badgers’ favor.
“It really did work out perfect,” Nortman said. “Our guys sold it perfectly and I went just about until I was about to drop the ball and it just all worked out perfectly. Once I saw it, I just knew we had the perfect play.”
Between the big games by replacements and bold moves in their play calling, the Badgers put together the most important reaction of the day. Following a program-defining victory over No. 1 Ohio State a week earlier, Wisconsin responded with another major win on the road over a Big Ten opponent.
Good teams pull off upsets at home, but it takes a great team to knock off a formidable opponent on the road.
“It was just four quarters of fanatical effort,” Bielema said. “Great individual efforts by some of our guys, but yet, unit efforts. Whether it be offense, defense or special teams, guys really had a tremendous amount of faith and executed.”
MADISON — Since the start of his collegiate career and throughout his coaching career, change has been a common theme for Sharif Chambliss.
As he joins Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan‘s staff as video coordinator for the 2010-11 season, Chambliss hopes yet another change will be a step in the right direction toward his eventual goal of becoming a head coach.
“It’s a great situation,” Chambliss said. “And it’s an opportunity that I’m really excited for this year.”
An all-state and honorable mention all-America selection as a senior, Chambliss led his Racine St. Catherine’s squad to a surprising 23-1 record and a berth in the WISAA Division I state title game. With no offer from Dick Bennett and the Badgers, however, Chambliss spent the next three years with the Nittany Lions of Penn State.
After leading PSU in scoring for consecutive seasons, Chambliss transferred to Wisconsin to play for Ryan. Chambliss sat out a season before captaining the 2005 Elite Eight squad.
He continued his playing career for two seasons in Portugal, and Chambliss then took a job as an assistant for two years at UW-Milwaukee under former UW assistant Rob Jeter. After UW-Milwaukee, Chambliss spent a year at Francis-Marion University and last season, he was an assistant under Jeff Gard at UW-Platteville.
Though it was not an easy decision for Chambliss to leave the Division II level at Francis-Marion to join Gard’s staff at Platteville, a Division III school, Chambliss highly regards his time in the western part of the state.
“I got the call from Jeff Gard and it was kind of a tough decision because at a certain point you think the numeral behind the division is what’s going to make or break you, but it’s not,” Chambliss said. “Platteville was a great experience. It was more than I expected.”
Finally, after a year abroad, two years in Milwaukee, a year in South Carolina and another year in Platteville, Chambliss finds himself back in Madison, reunited with Ryan.
“We’re excited to have Sharif back as a Badger,” Ryan said in a press release. “We saw his dedication and commitment first hand when he decided to forego a scholarship and return to his home state to join our program as a walk-on for the last two years of his playing career. This is a natural progression in Sharif’s career development.
“He was a great role model as a player and will be a tremendous asset to our staff.”
Now, Chambliss will look to translate his current position into the kind of success others — including one of the Big Ten’s best — before him have had.
“It’s a really great experience to be with, and around, coaches at this level,” Chambliss said. “If you look at prior history, this is the way that young guys are getting into the coaching business at the high level.
“Coach Mike Brown, who was the Cleveland Cavaliers coach, he started out at a video coordinator. The coach for the Miami Heat, started as a video coordinator. Tom Izzo started as a video coordinator. This is the way that you get into the business and you’re able to learn a lot from the game by watching a lot of film and helping the coaches with their scouting reports.”
MADISON — While summer means a time to relax for most college students, it’s a time for hard work and improvement if you’re a member of a Division I basketball program.
After he spent the summer competing against NBA competition as a part of the USA Men’s Select Team, senior forward Jon Leuer has shown significant improvement as Wisconsin began practicing last week.
In fact, he’s gotten so much better that it’s frustrating for teammates like sophomore Mike Bruesewitz to guard Leuer in practice.
According to Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, a lot of that has to do with Leuer’s approach to the unique opportunity to compete against Team USA on a daily basis for Villanova’s Jay Wright and Washington’s Lorenzo Romar.
“Jon was smart in that he went there with the idea that he could learn something and get better,” Ryan said. “Some guys are asked to those things and then guys are going to say, ‘OK, I’m going to prove I can beat the world, I’m going to get a potential contract and get noticed.
“Jon went in there with the idea that he knew he was going to try to help those guys get better, and he did, and that he was there to listen to Coach Wright and to Coach Romar. They just loved him for that.”
While it may not be much consolation for guys like Bruesewitz, Leuer likely went through much of the same thing over the summer as they are now.
In fact, one player in particular really stood out to Leuer as he did his best to cover him.
“Kevin Durant. He’s the best player I’ve seen,” Leuer said. “He’s just so long and athletic and he can score so easily. He’s pretty much impossible to guard. The scary thing is, he can still get better, too. Just trying to guard him every day was a challenge.
“I’m glad I don’t have to face him in the Big Ten.”
Going against Durant was a challenge for Leuer, much the way it has now become a stiffer challenge for Leuer’s teammates facing him in practice.
Of course, there’s plenty to take away from such challenges. If he went in with the mentality of learning from the best, what exactly did Leuer take away from the experience?
“First and foremost, I learned I can compete against those guys, which moving forward, gives me confidence that I know I can play against those guys,” Leuer answered. “It definitely gives you some confidence, knowing that you could do that against some of those guys.
“At the same time, every time you step on the court, it’s going to be a challenge and you’ve got to be willing to work hard and put forth the effort. It doesn’t matter what I did this summer.”
Now that he’s back to facing collegiate competition, Leuer will look to take his experience against Durant and other members of the 2010 FIBA world champion United State squad. And if he can successfully compete with established NBA big men, what Big Ten forward will be able to consistently stop Leuer?
Add on the fact that a number of Badgers have put together their best seasons as seniors, and Leuer appears to be poised for big things this year. But as a senior leader at Wisconsin, Leuer’s focus is not only on himself, either.
“As a senior, that’s kind of what you’re called upon to do, is step into a leadership role and me and the six other seniors, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Leuer said. “We know that this is our last go ’round, and it’s our job as seniors to kind of step into a leadership role and push the other guys and set a good example for them.”
MADISON — Out of Aberdeen Central High School in 2004, Taylor Mehlhaff was the top-ranked kicker in the nation, just ahead of current New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley. After four years at Wisconsin, Mehlhaff was the first kicker taken in the 2008 NFL Draft, as the Saints made him their sixth-round pick at No. 178 overall.
After three games with New Orleans that included a missed field goal and a missed extra-point attempt, Mehlhaff found himself without a job. Shortly after the 2008 season he signed with the Minnesota Vikings, but Mehlhaff was cut before the start of the season.
Following a year out of football in which he started Taylor Mehlhaff Kicking LLC, which runs camps for aspiring kickers, Mehlhaff now finds himself back in the game. For the 2010 season, Mehlhaff signed with the Hartford Colonials of the UFL, earning one of five starting kicking positions in the league.
Between strategy meetings last week, BadgerBlitz.com caught up with the former Badger. The following is a question and answer with Mehlhaff.
How’s it feel to be back on the football field in the UFL?
Mehlhaff: It’s been good, man. It’s a little bit different than the NFL in certain aspects of it, but really, I’ve really enjoyed it. The talent that’s here, the people that are playing, are guys that have been in and out of the NFL. The Omaha team probably has the most veterans; there’s guys that have been Pro Bowl guys and all of a sudden you get released or you get hurt and everyone’s trying to get back in the NFL.
There’s really a lot of talent. When you get some of these younger guys that get released, practices almost seem — especially in training camp — like guys are competing so hard because guys are hungry, they’re trying to get back in the NFL. Whereas, in the NFL, it’s just guys at times seem like they go through the motions.
It’s the same thing with the coaches too. The coaches have all been in the NFL and for whatever reason, their units didn’t perform well and now they’re down here. They’re all trying to get back in the NFL as well. So it’s kind of a thing where everybody is trying to reprove themselves a little bit.
How did you end up finding yourself on the Hartford roster this season?
Mehlhaff: You know, it was tough trying to get this because the way you look at it is, if you’re not one of the 32 guys in the NFL, basically these are the next five spots. There’s five teams here, and as far as the Canadian league goes, this is a much better situation than that because the amount of crossover between guys coaching in the NFL and UFL. Moneywise, this was also a much better situation than the Canadian league.
So, if you’re a free agent kicker out there, everyone was fighting to be one of these five guys. I was brought in with workouts for different teams, performed well and was able to get an opportunity here with the Colonials. So really, I feel pretty blessed and fortunate to get an opportunity with these guys.
This league really important for everybody here trying to get back in the NFL, but even more so than any other position, it’s a great opportunity for a kicker or punter because come late November when our season is done, there are going to be plenty of NFL teams out there where either the kicker or punter gets hurt or guys are struggling like you saw last year in the NFL.
An NFL team would much rather sign one of the five guys in this league that are playing week in and week out, practicing every single day, than sign a guy off the street. Last year, there were four kickers in the UFL, two of the four are in the NFL right now: the Redskins kicker [Graham Gano] and the Falcons kicker [Matt Bryant]. It’s a great opportunity for a kicker or punter.
Did you have any kind of options in the NFL before signing with Hartford?
Mehlhaff: I did. I heard from several teams throughout the NFL but for me, I didn’t want to go in and just be a camp leg, and sit behind a veteran knowing that I’m not going to be the guy. In this stage of my career right now, I need to be playing, after I was released by New Orleans, I had my preseason games with the Vikings, but I needed to get a full season under my belt where I could prove to teams that, ‘Hey, you can trust me as a field goal guy.’
So I wanted to get into this league and prove myself in a full season in a developmental league. But actually, the day we reported here, Seattle tried getting me to go there because Olindo Mare had just tweaked a groin or something like that. They tried signing me for the preseason games.
The way I looked at it was, I could go there and hopefully do well, perform well and get an opportunity if maybe another team picks me up after they release me, or I could stay here and keep working my butt off and try to have a great season and then hopefully there will be multiple opportunities. And I’m glad I stayed.
What would you say are the best and worst aspects of the UFL?
Mehlhaff: Well, just naturally, the UFL doesn’t have the budget that the NFL does. When you’re in the NFL, you’re taken care of so well. Here, it’s not like that. They put us up in a hotel, they pay for our living and food and everything, which is nice. But just little things like not having our own locker room, we’re at a hotel, so we kind of have a big convention room as our locker room.
When we go over to practice, we have a beautiful FieldTurf field that we practice on, but on days that it rains, you can’t go inside in the bubble or you can’t go in the indoor facility. In the NFL, all those things you kind of just take for granted, all those things are just kind of there for you. Whereas here, you’re kind of more on your own with stuff. At practice, when I’m warming up, I’m shagging my own footballs because we don’t have 15 equipment guys that are helping out with everything.
But I feel so fortunate to be doing this. I get to make a living going and playing football, so when the meals aren’t as good or when things aren’t quite like you’re used to, sometimes you’ve just got to look at it like, ‘Man, are you kidding me? I get to go out here and workout and kick a football for a couple hours and that’s the way I make a living.’
On the positive side, everything’s maybe just a little bit more laid back than in the NFL setting. The schedule is only eight weeks as well, with a couple bye weeks in there, so it’s nice. It’s easy to take care of your body. I’ve enjoyed this area too with Hartford, Conn., being right between Boston and New York.
You’ve said it’s everyone’s goal, but just to be clear, is your goal to get back to the NFL?
Mehlhaff: Oh yeah, definitely. For me, I think I look at it and why everyone is here, whether it’s coaches or players, everyone’s goal is to get back in the NFL. I feel like if you take care of business week in and week out, day in and day out in practice, if you have a solid season here, I think there will be plenty of opportunities that present themselves at the next level.
Every team sees every single one of our games and practices. Teams are paying attention, I know that because I’ve talked to some of the teams and they’ve said, ‘We’re going to be keeping an eye on you.’ So, you just worry about taking care of business here, and that’s why I didn’t jump on the Seattle opportunity.
I feel like this is what I have to do to reprove myself again. I think I’ve gotten better, and it’s been good for me to develop a little bit more here.
Are you still planning on doing the kicking camps?
Mehlhaff: Oh yeah, absolutely. Every single week I get a handful of e-mails from parents and kids asking about private lessons, so that’s definitely something that I’ll do in the offseason throughout the winter and spring and summer. I’ll do quite a few camps again as well as private lessons.
It went really well last year, I was actually surprised. Between my camps and private lessons, I probably saw over 200 kids, which really is pretty awesome. I’ve heard nothing but good things from the parents and the students.
It’s something that I enjoy doing, and I think it’s made me a better kicker as well, because when I’m sitting here, breaking these kids’ techniques down, it helps me hold myself accountable. It’s like mental practice for me.
What is the process like if an NFL team were to have interest in you?
Mehlhaff: If an NFL team wanted you bad enough, they can pay out, I think it’s $150,000, and they can grab us from our teams. Say some random team calls and says, ‘Hey, we need Taylor right now,’ and that could happen, they could let you go. But I don’t think that’s something that will really happen.
It’s a yearly contract here, and to be honest, if I could play here for years, I really would. I hope this league does a great job and continues to build. It’s supposed to expand to I think eight or 10 teams next year. I would love to play in this league as long as I can. If an NFL opportunity doesn’t present itself again, I would love to play here for sure.
How does the pressure in the UFL compare for you as a kicker to what you faced in the NFL and in college at Wisconsin?
Mehlhaff: For me, as a kicker, it’s always the same just because, at the professional level, you’re expected to make kicks. That’s the bottom line. Maybe it’s not the exact same pressure as it is in the NFL because there’s not as much money involved, but the bottom line is, if I want to get to the next level, I expect myself to be perfect.
I don’t think I feel any different when I walk out on the field here than I did when I was with New Orleans or at Wisconsin.