MADISON — On a day when the Wisconsin offense put up 70 points, it was defensive end J.J. Watt that stole the show. Quite easily, too.
Watt showed off his relentless motor Saturday, wreaking havoc on the Northwestern offense as the Badgers won 70-23 to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. Anyone who watched would have had a tough time not being impressed by the Pewaukee, Wis., native.
“He’s good football player, he’s a great football player,” said NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “I know how you want me to expand on some superlatives, but he’s a tremendous football player.”
For the game, Watt recorded seven tackles. All seven were solo tackles, as he did not record and assist and any tackles in the game.
Watt was credited with one sack, for a loss of 12 yards, while recording three tackles for loss, for a total of 19 yards. He also added three quarterback hurries. With his performance, Watt easily put his name in the conversation for Big Ten defensive player of the year.
“J.J., at his position, with what he’s done for our defense, I can’t say there’s anybody in our league that’s been comparable,” head coach Bret Bielema said.
“He’s got great instincts. He has the ability to anticipate plays, knocking down balls, running down plays from behind. He plays 100 miles an hour with a huge heart. One of four finalists for the Lott award, and if anybody’s playing better than him, I’d like to know.”
Watt showed those instincts and his ability to anticipate throughout his dominating performance on Saturday.
In the first quarter, NU quarterback Evan Watkins was intercepted by Jay Valai on the Wildcats’ second play from scrimmage. Watt had one of his three quarterback hurries on the play, forcing a bad throw from Watkins.
On the Wildcats’ next drive, following a three-and-out by the Wisconsin offense, Watt sacked Watkins, while also stripping him of the ball. Tyler Dippel recovered the fumble for Wisconsin, and the Badgers punched it in for a touchdown on two plays.
When Northwestern got the ball for the first time in the second quarter, trailing 21-3, quarterback Kain Colter was intercepted by Mike Taylor at the Wisconsin 32-yard line. Taylor picked up 47 yards on the return.
Once again, Watt forced the bad throw as he picked up a quarterback hurry on the play.
Late in the first half, Watt tackled Watkins following a 21-yard pickup, separating the quarterback from the ball, which allowed Aaron Henry to recover the football with 2:55 to go in the second quarter.
“I was just trying to have some fun,” Watt said of his performance. “It’s the last game of the year in Camp Randall, I’ve got to give our fans a little bit of a show. Our offense obviously put on a big show, so on defense we had to put on a show as well.
“We did that in a big way.”
Watt capped things off in the second half with one of the plays of the game.
In the third quarter, Northwestern scored on a 20-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 40 points at 63-23. On the extra-point attempt, Watt came up with the block, his third of the season.
“We’re always taught to give 110 percent every single play,” Watt said. “If they’re going to kick an extra point, that’s a point on the board that we don’t want to have.
“I’m going to give 110 percent effort on that play, I’m going to give 110 percent effort on my last play of the game and whenever I have a chance to be on that football field, I’m going to give every single thing I’ve got.”
MADISON — For the past two decades, Wisconsin has always been a run-first program. Over the last few weeks, the Badgers have been running wild, while opponents had little hope of stopping them.
On Saturday, when they needed a win to clinch a share of the Big Ten title, it was the passing game that really made the difference offensively. In his final home game, senior quarterback Scott Tolzien delivered one of the top performances of his career.
“Scott’s a guy that takes advantage of every opportunity, every play,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “He made a tremendous check there at the line of scrimmage on that last deep ball to David [Gilreath], that was all him.
“He had a huge strike there that just kind of finally put the dagger where it needed to be.”
Tolzien passed for 230 yards and four touchdowns on the day, while connecting 15 times on 19 pass attempts. He found five different receivers on the day, including four passes apiece to Nick Toon, Lance Kendricks and David Gilreath.
For his four touchdowns, Tolzien connected with Toon twice, while finding Kendricks and Gilreath for one score each. Kendricks led the way with 80 yards receiving, while Gilreath added 75 and Toon had 62.
“We have playmakers all over the board,” Kendricks said. “We deserve it.”
Kendricks’ four-catch performance came in less than 30 minutes of play, as the senior tight end left the game with an injury following his 29-yard touchdown reception with 3:14 to go in the second quarter.
Tolzien finally came out of the game himself following a timeout in the fourth quarter, earning a big ovation from a packed house at Camp Randall Stadium. When his name was announced during the pregame Senior Day festivities, he drew even bigger cheers.
With his performance, Tolzien had a passer rating of 250.1, which marked the fifth-best single-game pass efficiency in school history. On the season, Tolzien has a rating of 169.8 while completing 74.3 percent of his passes.
After running back Montee Ball got things rolling with three first-half touchdowns to put Wisconsin up 21-3, Tolzien delivered the next four touchdowns for the Badgers.
“I think it starts with the running game, and kind of always has,” Tolzien said. “Even a prelude to that, just the way the offensive line has been playing. They really got the ship rolling early and it really makes it easier on the passing game.”
MADISON — As the postseason awards name their finalists, they should always be taken with some grain of salt. Even with that in mind, it was an impressive week for Wisconsin.
As a number of postseason individual awards named finalists this week, five Badgers — four on offense and one on the defensive side of the ball — and one UW head coach made the cut. They weren’t listed for just any awards either.
Senior left tackle Gabe Carimi made the final cut for the Outland Trophy, given annually to the nation’s best interior lineman. Three-time Pro Bowler, and Brookfield, Wis., native Joe Thomas currently holds the honor of being the only Outland Trophy winner in school history.
“I remember holding the bag for Joe Thomas,” Carimi said. “It’s a long way from that.”
Carimi’s honor undoubtedly comes in part as recognition for Wisconsin’s dominant rushing attack, which has been near impossible to stop over the past few games.
Of course, the three-headed monster out of the backfield wouldn’t likely have quite the same success without Carimi, a future first-rounder, leading the way.
“It’s a great honor and all I have to do is focus on keeping on playing well,” Carimi said. “I know my teammates helped me out to get me in that position. We have a great offensive line and obviously they looked at that, and we’re scoring and we’re running well. Obviously all that came into play when I got nominated.”
Joining Carimi in playing a huge role in blocking for the Wisconsin running game is senior tight end Lance Kendricks. While the Milwaukee native has not enjoyed the kind of statistically impressive season many predicted for him in the passing game, it didn’t matter.
Kendricks found his name this week as one of three finalists for the Mackey Award, given annually to the nation’s best tight end. Though current New York Giants tight end Travis Beckum was a semifinalist in 2006 and a finalist in 2007, if he were to win Kendricks would be the first Mackey Award winner in school history.
“That was definitely one of my preseason goals, just a personal goal to have and just something to strive toward,” Kendricks said of the award. “I think it’s a good honor just to be nominated for something like that.
“Just going out there and working hard and knowing at the end of the day, as long as you work hard, you’re going to get better. I think that’s kind of just what I live by as far as playing football.”
With Kendricks up for one of the more prestigious awards in the nation, it has not gone unnoticed by Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.
In fact, he’s gotten on the phone since hearing the news, campaigning for his tight end. It’s not the first time Bielema has done such a thing, either.
“Early in my coaching career, one of the first players that was up for a national award was, Joe Thomas was up for the Outland Trophy,” Bielema said. “At the time Justin [Doherty] was the guy, and I said ‘Give me the voting list of all the people that vote for the Outland Trophy,’ and I just started calling people.
“I was in my car, driving around recruiting, called like 25 people, and they were all taken aback that I would call and lobby for my guy. I’m like, ‘Well, hey, he’s done everything for me for this year and beyond, I’ll do anything for him.’ So I’ve gotten on the phone over the last week and tried to reach out to so many people.”
One of three running backs Carimi and Kendricks have been blocking for is John Clay, the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year.
Despite missing the last two games due to injury, Clay was one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award, given each year to the best running back in the country. While backups Montee Ball and James White have stolen the show lately, Clay got the nod as the Badgers leading rusher.
While the injuries have prevented Clay this season from putting up the numbers he’s shown he is capable of, the success and reputation of the Wisconsin rushing attack likely gave him a boost.
“I definitely think that has a lot to do with the success of the team,” Kendricks said of the multiple award finalists. “It’s hard to say enough about those guys.”
While Carimi, Kendricks and the rest of the offensive line lead the way up front for Clay, none of it would run as smoothly as it has without a competent signal caller behind center. Enter senior quarterback Scott Tolzien who has quietly led the nation in completion percentage through 11 games.
Tolzien, who also ranks in the top ten in pass efficiency, was named a finalist this week for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award, given each year to the top senior quarterback in the country.
“Me and Gabe were talking about it, and there’s a lot of interchangeable parts on this team, along the line, the running backs, the receivers, and I don’t think Scott Tolzien is one of them,” said senior left guard John Moffitt. “Scott is a valuable piece of the offense.”
Being the humble leader that he is, Tolzien politely disagreed.
“I think this program’s in good hands no matter who’s at quarterback.”
Along with the four offensive nominees, junior defensive end J.J. Watt was named a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Award, and Bielema was named by the Football Writers Association of America as a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award.
In talking about the awards at his Monday press conference, Bielema looked beyond the simple recognition of his players’ accomplishments.
What he was most proud of was the character of the athletes nominated.
“In today’s day and age, with these national awards, it’s one thing, it’s his body of work usually their senior year, or the year that they win the award that they’re going to get this basically get the recognition,” Bielema said. “But what’s this person going to be like two years, a year from now, two years from now, three years from now? I think it came to light with the Reggie Bush thing, and now there’s all this other discussion.
“I can guarantee this, J.J. Watt’s up for awards, Lance Kendricks is up for awards, Scott Tolzien is up for awards, John Clay, [is up for the Doak Walker Award].
“But those kids, if they win those awards, there will never be a day of embarrassment for that trophy because they represent some pretty good qualities in people.”
ANN ARBOR — What do you do when you know what’s coming, and you still can’t stop it?
If the Wisconsin Badgers have the ball, more often than not, it’s going to be a running play. You know it, I know it, Bret Bielema knows it, the opposing defenses know it.
But it doesn’t matter.
Between its monstrous offensive line and all-Big Ten worthy running backs, Wisconsin is so good at what it does running the ball that you cannot stop it. As the saying goes, you can only hope to contain it.
“I got on (with offensive coordinator Paul Chryst) and said, ‘Hey, they can’t stop your run game,'” Bielema said. “Point blank. There wasn’t anything they could do to slow that down.”
With that in mind, Bielema and Chryst went to the run game when they needed it most. After an early second-half interception allowed Michigan to cut the lead to 24-14, the Badgers dropped back to pass just one more time in the game, though that play ended with quarterback Scott Tolzien rushing for five yards.
“Wisconsin’s always been built off the running game,” said White, a Big Ten freshman of the year candidate. “So whenever we’re going down, or things seem to be down, we always just go back up and just rely on the run game.
“Me and Montee just took it in our hands. We knew that the team was going to be counting on us, so we just went out there and had a great performance.”
White and Ball rushed for 181 yards and 23 carries and 173 yards on 29 carries, respectively. Ball did not lose yardage on a single carry, while White lost eight over the course of the game.
Combined, the duo netted 354 yards and six touchdowns on 52 carries, with an average of 6.68 yards per attempt. By comparison, Michigan rushed for 168 yards — 121 of which came from Denard Robinson — on 36 carries as a team, averaging 4.7 per carry.
“We just imposed our will on them,” Ball said. “The offensive line did a great job of pulling off the blocks.
“We tell each other, ‘We’re going to move this ball.’ What John Moffitt always tells us in the huddle is, ‘Let’s roll.’ That’s what we’re all about.”
With the way they’ve run the ball over the past few games, Wisconsin looks reminiscent of its glory years during the Barry Alvarez era.
When they went to back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1999 and 2000, the Ron Dayne-led Badgers would line it up with everyone in the stadium knowing they would run the ball. It didn’t matter.
Now, the Badgers have a strong enough rushing attack that they can do the exact same thing, for 28 straight plays even, with two “backup” running backs. As reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year John Clay watched on the sideline, his replacements have stolen the show of late.
Of course, at nearly any other school in the nation, Ball and White would be starters.
“Somebody just told me, 150 yards apiece, that was only the second time in school history, or something along that lines,” Bielema said. “It allows us to recruit good running backs, I know that.
“I get excited because, to see the smiles on their faces, and to realize that one’s a true freshman and the other’s a sophomore, is a pretty good feeling with the all-Big Ten player sitting on the bench. It feels good.”
ANN ARBOR — It was like déjà vu all over again.
Through two quarters, Wisconsin dominated all facets of the game in its first trip to Michigan Stadium in more than two years. Entering halftime, the Badgers had shut out the Wolverines, leading 24-0.
As the two teams headed to the locker rooms, the Michigan players were booed off the field, just as they were in 2008, when Wisconsin led 19-0 through 30 minutes of play. Unlike two years ago, however, the Badgers weren’t celebrating anything in the locker room.
“We talked about it being 0-0, just like it was last week against Indiana,” head coach Bret Bielema said of his halftime speech. “That was part of the past.”
That past came back to haunt Wisconsin in the present as the third quarter kicked off.
Michigan took the ball first after the break, and quickly marched down the field for their first touchdown of the day. Capping a drive of 71 yards on 10 plays in just under four minutes, Denard Robinson found Darryl Stonum from 24 yards out, putting the Wolverines on the board for the first time in the game.
Three plays later, Isaac Anderson turned the ball back over to Michigan.
Robinson connected with Stonum again, for 34 yards this time, giving the Wolverines a 1st-and-Goal at the 4-yard line. On the next play, Robinson punched it in.
All of a sudden, the game went from 24-0 to 24-14, and things got very interesting.
“One thing about this team is we don’t let momentum just completely snowball effect and destroy us like that,” senior safety Jay Valai said. “We knew eventually we were going to make a play… and we locked it down from there on.”
One thing that helped was the offense answering quickly following the second Michigan touchdown. Whereas in 2008 the Badgers failed to move the ball effectively as they struggled in the second half, UW went 69 yards in eight plays and 3:52 to go up 31-14.
After another Robinson touchdown run six plays and 2:19 later, Wisconsin answered again, going 45 yards in seven play and 3:14 for the score. Then came the big defensive play that slowed the Michigan offense.
With the Wolverines threatening at the Wisconsin 32-yard line, J.J. Watt tipped a 2nd down pass and hauled in the interception, returning it 15 yards to the Michigan 40-yard line. While it only resulted in three points for the Badgers, it kept at least three, and more likely seven points off the board for the home team.
“We obviously screwed up a little bit in the beginning of the second half,” Watt said. “We know the third quarter wasn’t our best quarter, but the best part about our team is we regroup and we come back and we play strong. That’s exactly what we did.”
After a 40-yard field goal put Wisconsin up 41-21, Michigan answered with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Robinson to Roy Roundtree. Unfazed, the Badgers went back down the other way for a 9-play, 40-yard touchdown drive to retain the 20-point margin at 48-28.
With Tate Forcier in at quarterback for Robinson, the Wisconsin defense made one final stop. After two kneel downs by quarterback Scott Tolzien, the Badgers secured their first win in Ann Arbor since 1994.
Fittingly, they did so by doing the exact opposite of what cost them a win in 2008.
“It’s huge,” said Aaron Henry, who led the team with 10 tackles. “It’s the Big House, everybody knows about the Big House. Everybody knows how hard it is to win in the Big House.”
MADISON — When he woke up on Sept. 27, 2008, Aaron Henry saw his team come out of the locker room, in front of a crowd of 109,833, leading 19-0 on the road at Michigan.
Henry watched for a few minutes before turning the game off for most of the third quarter. When he tuned back in, things weren’t going so well for Wisconsin.
“I thought, ‘this game’s over,'” Henry said of his first reaction. “When I turned it back on, man, the game was really, really close. It was very, very frustrating and I was a little disappointed to see how things turned out.
“I was very surprised. We were doing everything well as far as our defense goes, and our offense was pretty much doing what they wanted to. But their offense is a big play offense, and they had a couple of big plays. That woke that crowd of 110,000 people up.”
Just minutes before Henry turned the game on, that same crowd was awake and fired up, but not in a way the Wolverines were accustomed to hearing.
“I remember their fans were giving us a pat on the back, telling us we were doing a good job, and they were booing their own team,” Culmer St. Jean recalled. “That was probably a first, but that’s what happens when you get up 19-0 going into the half on the road.”
With such a commanding lead through two quarters, the Badgers had plenty of confidence going into the locker room at halftime. Perhaps even too much.
That’s not too surprising, though, when you consider that Wisconsin outgained Michigan 202 yards to 21 in the first half, while running nearly twice as many plays offensively. Add in more than 20 minutes in time of possession, and the Badgers certainly had quite the half.
Unfortunately, out of five scoring drives, four ended in field goals. Wisconsin went just 1-for-10 on third downs in the first half, and only once punched it in the end zone for a touchdown.
“It was terrible,” Bill Nagy said. “It was just one of those games where we had so many opportunities in the first half, and the defense played their tails off in the first half, but the offense, we just couldn’t capitalize. We got some field goals and it ended up catching up with us in the second half because they had some big plays. That was just a terrible feeling watching that slip away.”
At halftime, leaving the Big House with a loss was the farthest thing from the minds of Badgers as they sat in the visitors’ locker room.
After all, in their minds, they had already won.
“All our guys were piping off in the locker room, we thought it was over, but obviously it wasn’t,” senior safety Jay Valai said. “They came out and they showed that to us.”
“We felt good about ourselves. We were definitely feeling good and I think that’s what killed us,” St. Jean added. “We went in and I don’t think we had the same attack mindset in the second half. We thought they were just going to be flat coming into the second half and they definitely did the total opposite.”
Fortunately, the lesson of that 2008 debacle has not been lost on the 2010 Badgers.
They’ve shown an ability to win on the road already this year, knocking off Iowa at Kinnick Stadium and winning at Purdue earlier this month. Perhaps more importantly, though, they also have shown they’re not afraid to keep their foot firmly on the gas pedal.
With a 21-0 early lead against the then-No. 1 Buckeyes a month ago, the Badgers didn’t get complacent. Even when Ohio State cut the lead to three points in the second half, Wisconsin answered with a couple scores to seal the game.
More recently, UW made national headlines by putting up 83 points against Indiana last week. Even after leading 38-10 at the half, Bret Bielema‘s squad stayed aggressive.
“You just learn from your lessons,” Valai said. “Don’t ever feel satisfied when you’re on the football field, you just keep playing hard. We’ve got to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen this year.
“Keep playing. Don’t count your eggs before they hatch, because that’s what we did at halftime.”
For those that might worry the team is too focused on the revenge factor and is not concerned enough with the 2010 Michigan Wolverines, don’t worry.
As the fifth-ranked team in the nation, Wisconsin is well aware of the situation at hand.
“We definitely learned from that game, but it’s not like we’re sitting here thinking about it every single day,” said defensive end J.J. Watt. “We’re the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers, not the 2008 Wisconsin Badgers.”
MADISON – For the first time in nearly two weeks, Wisconsin guard Rob Wilson returned to practice Thursday, looking like his usual self.
Wilson showed no effects of the right hamstring injury that has kept him out of the Badgers’ first two games as he practiced with the first-team offense and defense.
“It feels real good,” Wilson said. “It’s still coming along, but I expect to get in on Saturday. It’s the coaches’ decision, but I’m ready to play.”
Wilson played a limited role in the Badgers’ first exhibition contest, but in the three games since (including a second exhibition game), Wilson has been limited to a spectator role.
It’s been a frustrating situation for the junior guard, to say the least.
“It’s really tough, but it’s human nature, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Wilson said. “I’ve just got to deal with it, get better and come back stronger so it won’t happen again.
“It’s really frustrating because we had a lot of expectations going into this year. I worked hard this summer and then this comes along. But it’s part of the game.”
Without Wilson in the lineup, the Wisconsin offense has not missed a beat, putting up an average of 92 points per game through its first two. It’s the team’s highest average through two games since putting up 103.5 per game through the first two games in 1993.
Comparatively, last year’s squad averaged just 66.5 points after two games.
Much of the offensive success has had to do with the improvement of senior forward Jon Leuer who has put up 23 points, 6.5 rebounds, four assists and 1.5 blocks per game. But the guard play has been impressive as well.
Junior point guard Jordan Taylor has done an excellent job leading the UW offense, averaging 15 points and five assists per game. In the absence of Wilson, freshman Josh Gasser also has shown plenty of skill.
“They’ve been really impressive,” Wilson said. “Especially the freshmen like Josh stepping up. I’m learning a lot already sitting on the bench this year through two games.”
Gasser started at the two guard Tuesday against North Dakota, making him just the third UW freshman to start in the Bo Ryan era, joining Alando Tucker and Devin Harris.
Even with his 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game average so far, Gasser knows the team will be even better with Wilson back in the lineup.
“Today was his first practice back, and it was exciting to have him out there,” Gasser said. “It’s just another guy to help us, especially offensively. We need guard play, it’s a big part of our team. So he’s going to come in right away and help us.
“Rob’s a very good player, both offensively and defensively. He such a big part of our team, so to put up numbers like we did (without him), it shows that we are a pretty good team. With him back, we’re going to be even better.”