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Focused on stopping Pryor

October 14, 2010 Comments off

MADISON — Twenty-two teams since 2008 have seen first-hand just how good Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor can be. Only four have left victorious.

All of those teams — aside from Purdue last season — were ranked in the top three of the AP poll: No. 3 Penn State in 2008, No. 3 Texas in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, No. 1 USC in 2008, and No. 3 USC in 2009.

Not surprisingly, Pryor struggled in each of those five losses, especially when he looked to escape the pocket and run with the ball. On 66 attempts, Pryor picked up just 194 rushing yards, for 2.93 yards per carry.

In the Buckeyes’ 27 wins since he arrived on campus, Pryor has rushed for 1604 yards on 289 carries for a 5.55 average. Two of those wins came against the Wisconsin Badgers, but those were games in which Pryor did not run particularly well.

“The offense is ran around No. 2,” free safety Aaron Henry said. “So we feel like if we can contain No. 2 and make sure No. 2 doesn’t beat us, then we’re going to force other guys to make plays.

“We’re going to go out there and do our best as we can to contain him, but we’re also going to try to go out there and make those other guys make plays.”

In two games against Wisconsin, the 6-foot-6 quarterback has rushed for 55 yards on 25 carries for a 2.2 yard average. Though they’ve shown an ability to shut him down defensively, the Badgers know as well as anyone what kind of impact Pryor can have on a game with his legs.

Last year at Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes’ only offensive touchdown came late in the first half wound down, as the Buckeyes drove 88 yards in 72 seconds, to take a 14-10 lead into the locker room at halftime.

The drive began and ended on big plays, both of which involved Pryor. The touchdown was scored on an impressive 32-yard toss by Pryor to wide receiver DeVier Posey, but the first play of the drive was the one that set everything in motion.

“I was chasing down on the back side, I needed to go to the upfield shoulder, and I went to the near shoulder,” said defensive end J.J. Watt, who put the blame on himself a year ago. “Obviously that’s going to hurt you big time, and it did.

“He makes quick cuts and I’m 290 pounds, I don’t make as quick of cuts as he does. He beat me on that play. That’s for sure.”

As a freshman, Pryor had an even bigger impact in his first visit to Camp Randall Stadium.

In a game that was also played under the lights, Pryor led the Buckeyes down the field on two fourth-quarter scoring drives, using both his arm and legs. With 1:08 remaining in the game, Pryor found the end zone from 11 yards out for the game-winning touchdown.

On that play, Pryor and the Buckeyes took advantage of some confusion on the defensive side, snapping the ball quickly and catching the Badgers off guard just enough for the score.

“Once again, he used those feet of his,” Valai said. “His feet are what makes him go. He’s doing a great job passing this year, but his legs are what make Terrelle Pryor a Heisman candidate.

“For every two steps, he’s taking about six yards.”

With those two game-changing plays in mind, the Badgers know they’ll have their hands full this week against the Buckeyes’ signal caller.

While the Wisconsin defense has demonstrated an ability to limit Pryor’s effectiveness as a duel threat quarterback, his ability as a passer, as noted by Valai, has drawn a lot more national attention this season.

Through six games, Pryor has completed 104 of 153 passes for 1,349 yards, 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. His 170.5 passer rating is more than 40 points better than a year ago and a better than 25-point improvement on his career rating.

But does Pryor’s improvement as a passer mean the Buckeyes have become a pass-first team?

“They’re Pryor first, whether run or pass,” Valai said. “They may drop into pass, but Pryor may turn the edge. You’ve just got to respect him either way, and that’s what makes them a great offense, because you’ve got to play the run and play the pass equally.”

Henry learns from former Wisconsin safeties

October 8, 2010 Comments off

MADISON — This is your deal now, take over. Take it on, and go get it.

With those words former Wisconsin free safety Chris Maragos, who was forced out in the final minutes of the Champs Sports Bowl with an injury, handed over the reins to Aaron Henry as he watched from the sideline.

Henry has not looked back since.

“That was it, he went out there, we won the game and ever since then, he’s really taken hold of the position, and he’s really taken ownership of it,” Maragos said. “I couldn’t be any more proud of him.”

When asked who has helped him in the transition from cornerback to free safety, Henry quickly admits he could run off a long list of names.

Among those that have given Henry advice is current teammate and fellow safety, Jay Valai. What did Valai have to say?

“Always be true to yourself, man,” Valai recalled. “Just go out there and play football and don’t overthink. You over think stuff, that’s how you get beat. Big Ten football’s here now, concepts pick up a lot more, teams are going to be better for the most part and you’ve just got to be ready to play.”

Narrowing down the list of names, Henry recognizes the two most influential on his progress at the position.

Fortunately for Henry and the Badgers, those two athletes, Jim Leonhard and Maragos, happen to be playing the position professionally, for the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Though advice from Leonhard was invaluable for Henry, it was Maragos who truly had the greatest influence on the move from corner to safety.

The strong bond between Henry and Maragos led the two to grow even closer as they worked to help each other improve, both physically and mentally.

“You probably can’t see the resemblance, but Chris and I are like brothers,” Henry said. “If anybody’s going to be critical of me, that I can take, it’s him, because we’re like family. He’ll call me up and be like, ‘Aaron, this is something you need to work on. Aaron, when you see so and so coming on a boot, you’ve got to make sure you cut that.’ It was just small things like that to help me fine tune my game.”

For Maragos, the decision to help Henry was a no-brainer based on their already close relationship and the strong work ethic possessed by the current UW free safety. While he was working on earning a position of his own with the 49ers, Maragos passed along whatever he could to help Henry.

In the process, Maragos found himself on the other side of things from where he was just a couple years earlier.

“I know for me, Jimmy made things real clear for me,” Maragos said. “He kind of has that ability to say like, ‘Listen, I’m in it right now, I’m playing these same coverages as you, these are some of the small things that help me out.’

“Now, things that I’ve acquired through playing the position, that’s what I’ve tried to pass on to Aaron and try to be the same help that Jimmy has been to me than I can be to Aaron.”

One of the biggest things Maragos did to help Henry had little to do with the physical nature of the position and everything to do with all the information that comes along with it.

As one of the leaders on defense, Henry had a lot more to learn than as a cornerback.

“I remember talking to Maragos and he was just telling me about how free safety in our defense, it’s like a code you’ve got to crack,” Henry said. “Once you’ve cracked the code, everything is going to be pretty easy. I feel like I’ve cracked that code, so things are starting become a whole lot clearer and smoother.”

“As a safety you have to know so many different things and I think a lot of things can kind of run together,” Maragos added. “But when you get it and when things click, it’s like the code has been broken and you can see how clear everything is, and you can know how to play everything exactly how it should play out.”

So far, the early results would indicate Henry has in fact cracked the code.

Through five games, Henry has already matched his total from a year ago with 18 tackles. His five pass breakups are already a career-high, and his first two career fumble recoveries have come this season. On top of all that, he added his second career touchdown at UNLV.

Not only is Henry making plays, he’s made a name for himself with big hits on opposing receivers. The biggest difference in Henry now compared to when he first made the switch?

“Confidence,” Valai said. “Confidence is everything. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, it’s tough to be out there making plays on the football field because you don’t believe in yourself. I think confidence is probably the biggest thing at any position, and once Aaron’s gained his confidence, he’s been great.”

‘D’ focused on third downs

October 7, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – Were they going to get off the field? Were they going to give their offense a chance to get back on the field?

Those questions, posed rhetorically by Aaron Henry while fielding questions in a trailer just outside Spartan Stadium last Saturday, likely were going through the mind of many Badger players and fans as Michigan State marched down the field late in the game.

In the end, the answers to the questions were, ‘No,’ and ‘Not really.’

Trailing by three points with 10 minutes remaining in their Big Ten season opener, all the Badgers had to do was hold the Spartans to a field goal. Do that, and they had a chance to escape with a late, game-winning touchdown drive.

Instead, they let Kirk Cousins lead Michigan State down the field for a 15-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock. Not only was UW then trailing by 10 points, it also had little time in which to mount a comeback.

“Of course, of course you’ve got to get off the field. Definitely, man,” Henry said. “The game is won on defense, believe it or not. Anytime you play a team, if you can’t get off the field, if you can’t force the team to punt, you put yourself in a bad situation.”

While they secured three turnovers on defense, the Badgers only forced the Spartans to punt once in the game. Every other drive that didn’t result in a turnover ended with MSU putting points on the board.

Much of that had to do with the Badgers’ inability to get off the field on third down, which allowed Michigan State to string together a few long scoring drives. After allowing the Spartans to convert on 9 of 18 third-down conversion attempts, it’s no surprise that third downs have been a point of emphasis in practice this week.

What may not be as apparent is the focus put on having success on first and second down, to avoid tough third down situations.

“It’s a big issue when on first and second down you’re giving up three or four yards and they’re in third and short, third and three to five,” said defensive end J.J. Watt. “Third and three to five is a hard down to play, and I know it’s a hard down for him to call, so we really can’t put the defensive coordinator in situations like that.”

Though last week’s shortcomings have certainly been a point of emphasis, there’s no lack of motivation on the Wisconsin sideline as they prepare for this week’s opponent.

With border rival Minnesota coming into Camp Randall for Saturday’s homecoming game, the Badgers know exactly what’s at stake. Considering the way they played in East Lansing to open the conference season, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe could not come at a better time.

“You can’t think of a better game to have. If we’re going to go out there and play the game of our lives, this week would be a great week to do it,” Henry said. “I think this Axe is something that motivates everybody in the locker room. You would hate for a team to run over on your sideline and take it.”

Despite the Gophers’ lack of success so far, the UW defense will not be taking them lightly. It’s been seven years since Minnesota held the Axe, with the last six contests being decided by an average of 12 points.

In their last three matchups — two in Minneapolis and one in Madison — the Badgers have won by just over four points a game, and by just three in each of the last two.

With no one on the current Minnesota roster having touched the Axe in their careers, the last thing Wisconsin wants to do is see the Gophers celebrate with it on their home turf.

“They’re a hungry team. This is like the Super Bowl for them,” safety Jay Valai said. “So I know we’ll play them just the same way. It’s going to be a fun game.

“We don’t want anybody to come on our sidelines and have that feeling we felt a couple years ago at Iowa.”

Spartans’ big plays hurt UW

October 2, 2010 Comments off

EAST LANSING — Every time you looked up, it seemed like Michigan State had the ball, and down-and-distance was in the Badgers’ favor.

More often than not though, it also seemed as though the Spartans picked up enough yardage to earn a new set of downs. As if that weren’t enough, many of those third-down conversions turned out to be big gains, dramatically changing the course of the drive and the football game.

“Big plays on defense hurt us,” said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.

“We’re a team that if we do things uncharacteristic of what we are, we’re going to meet failure and not have success in critical situations.”

Wisconsin’s defense was not the only unit hurt by big plays. The Badgers were hurt yet again on special teams in the second quarter when MSU returner Keshawn Martin returned a Brad Nortman punt 74 yards for the touchdown.

While it may not have won the game for the Spartans, Martin’s touchdown changed the momentum in a hurry.

“I wouldn’t say it got us beat today,” free safety Aaron Henry said of the special teams. “But it didn’t help.”

On their three touchdown drives, the Spartans converted on five third downs and two fourth down attempts. Those three drives also featured nine plays of 10 yards or more for the Michigan State offense.

All told, MSU went for 10 or more yards on 17 plays in the game, including three that were at least 20 yards and three more of 30 yards or more. On third down, the Spartans went 9-for-18, while converting two of three fourth downs.

“We need to get it together, man,” Henry said. “It’s just the small things that we’ve got to correct. We know we have a ton of talent, we know we’ve got a real good football team, we know we can play with anybody in the country.

“But today, Michigan State was a little bit better than us.”

On no drive were the Badgers’ third down struggles more evident than the Spartans’ final trip down the field. Reeling off 15 plays over 8:03 for 84 yards, Michigan State delivered a devastating knockout punch to Wisconsin.

Crucial to their success on that drive were three successful third-down conversions, from third-and-9, third-and-11 and third-and-5. The first was converted on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins to Mark Dell. That was nothing compared to the back-breaking pass that came just three plays later.

Facing third-and-11 on his own 28-yard line, Cousins found Larry Caper for a 35-yard completion, moving the ball down to the UW 37-yard line.

“We did a great job on first and second down,” cornerback Antonio Fenelus said. “We’ve just got to be able to convert and stop them on those third and longs and just [eliminate] those big plays they had.”

Caper struck again later in the drive, rushing for 11 yards on third-and-5, which set up a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line and gave Michigan State a shot at a game-winning touchdown a few plays later.

Wisconsin’s inability to prevent big plays and stop Michigan State on third down was reflected in the final statistics for the Spartan offense. On the ground, MSU outgained UW 175 yards to 165. Through the air, Sparty put up 269 yards to just 127 for Bucky.

All told, the Spartans tallied 444 yards to 292 for Wisconsin. Both numbers were far from the Badgers’ season averages of 484 yards per game offensively and 265.2 given up on defense.

“That’s all on the players, we’ve got to pick it up,” safety Jay Valai said. “It was very frustrating because we’re a better defense than that. We’ve got to be able to stop them eventually.”