Already a popular event each year, the 2011 version of the spring game promises to be better than ever, especially considering the anticipated competition at quarterback. Credit the philanthropic thinking of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez and head football coach Bret Bielema for the improvement.
For the first time, the UW Athletic Department will charge admission to the event, something Alvarez and Bielema have discussed doing for years. The cost will be $5 per ticket, with all proceeds going to the University of Wisconsin School of Nursing.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for the School of Nursing,” said Katharyn May, dean of the School of Nursing. “Fundraising right now is a tough sell, and the nursing school has been working on raising sufficient funding to build a new home for more than a decade.
“The state of Wisconsin needs this nursing school to grow. We’re one of the best in the country, but we do not have any more room. We can’t put any more students in any more classes because we don’t have seats for them.”
Alvarez announced the ticketing plan Monday afternoon at Wisconsin’s weekly head coaches press conference. In doing so, he also shared a couple stories about how the idea came about.
During his time at Iowa under legendary head coach Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes annual spring game featured free admission, much like its Wisconsin counterpart has for years. Despite no cost, attendance at the event remained low.
But Fry had an idea to get more fans to show up.
“I can remember Hayden saying, ‘You know, if it’s free, people think there’s no value in it. If you just charge $2, we’ll increase the crowd,’” Alvarez said. “Sure enough, that’s what happened.”
Last spring, Iowa drew 23,502 fans for its annual scrimmage, compared to the crowd of 23,567 that watched the Cardinal squad defeat the White, 25-3, at Camp Randall Stadium on the same sunny afternoon. But those numbers still put Wisconsin well behind the leaders nationally, which include a couple Big Ten rivals.
At Nebraska, the 2010 Red-White game was watched by 77,936 fans. In Columbus, despite poor weather, the Buckeyes drew a crowd of 65,223 at Ohio Stadium.
Football is by far the most popular sport in the United States, and the growing attendance for spring football games — which mean precious little in the grand scheme of things — is the perfect example of such popularity. With tickets being in such high demand, it should come as no surprise that so many schools now charge for these annual intrasquad contests.
What is remarkable, however, is the decision of the UW Athletic Department to charge admission without keeping any of the proceeds for itself.
“This is about us being a part of the campus and us supporting campus,” Alvarez said. “We try to be good partners. We get great cooperation on campus, and this is one way for us to give back and say ‘Thank you,’ and also support the campus.”
Now you may be wondering how Alvarez and Bielema decided the game would benefit the School of Nursing, considering how many other programs on campus could be equally deserving. As it turns out, it was a matter of excellent timing.
On the very same day that the two had decided to charge admission and contribute the proceeds to one of the departments at the University of Wisconsin, the School of Nursing held an event with Alvarez in attendance.
In talking with May and a number of others in the nursing program, Alvarez learned of their excitement regarding a capital project that would provide a new home for the School of Nursing and allow it to increase enrollment by 30 percent.
“One of them said to me, ‘So what are you going to do for us, coach?’” Alvarez recalled. “And I said, ‘You know what, I’ve got something for you.’ And so we shared with them what our plan was, (and) they became very excited about it. I think it will be a win-win situation for them and also for us.”
Coming off their most successful season in more than a decade, which saw the Badgers go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000, it would be safe to assume the annual spring game would see a jump in attendance. Even with a cost of $5 for admission, Wisconsin could expect its biggest crowd yet for the Cardinal-White scrimmage.
That being the case, it also would have been easy for Alvarez to charge the money and take the proceeds for the Athletic Department, which could use some added revenue to keep up with the other major Division I programs in the nation.
Instead, Alvarez and Bielema saw the opportunity to do something bigger than themselves with the spring game. In allowing the School of Nursing to run the event and collect the proceeds, the football program will have a direct hand in furthering the education of some of the university’s best and brightest students, including a number of its athletes.
Despite being in the midst of the greatest nursing shortage in recent history, the School of Nursing has been forced to turn away three students for every one admitted, making it the most competitive program on campus. With the added fundraising now available through the spring football game, enrollment could increase within two years.
If everything goes according to plan, with high attendance at the spring football game and additional funding from the state of Wisconsin, the School of Nursing hopes to break ground this fall, with the new building to open by Fall 2013.
Just how close are they to the necessary funding?
“Within striking distance,” May said. “My job is (to get) $17.3 million, and we are at 13.3 right now. … Nurses do not grow up to become wealthy people by and large, so we are relying on powerful people like Coach Alvarez to help us get the word out.”
Well, now that the word is out, it’s up to Wisconsin fans to come through and uphold their end of the bargain.
Can you spare $5 to support the School of Nursing while spending a beautiful spring afternoon watching a football game with thousands of your closest friends?
If you can, I’ll see you there.
PASADENA — Asked how tough a two-point loss in the Rose Bowl was to deal with, J.J. Watt took a moment before answering, trying to collect himself and his thoughts.
“We know how much this means,” Watt began before his emotions got the best of him.
Teary-eyed, Watt attempted to regain his composure and finish his answer.
“To everybody. To everybody involved,” Watt continued, his voice now audibly revealing the fact that he could not stop from crying. Another deep breath, as some sniffles now accompany the tears.
“We work 365 days a year for this,” Watt said, powering through the emotions, tears and sniffles. “And then we come out here and don’t execute, and we…”
Finally, it was all too much for the junior defensive end. Watt sat back, and covered his face, attempting to hide the tears streaming down from his eyes. For seven seconds, everyone in the room sat silent, watching the display of emotion from Watt, and waiting for him to finish his answer.
Watt did not, and could not finish his thought at that time. But he didn’t have to.
If there were any question about how devastating a two-point loss was after working so hard to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than a decade, Watt’s tears made it clear.
The Wisconsin Badgers didn’t come to the Rose Bowl just for the experience, they came to win, and fell short of their goal.
“It’s pretty tough,” left guard John Moffitt said. “It’s not really something you can describe that easy. I mean, I don’t know. It’s tough.”
Moffitt, having played his final game in a Wisconsin uniform, summed the loss up pretty well, by not summing it up. How can you put into words the disappointment that comes from such a heartbreaking loss on such a big stage?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Despite TCU’s status as the three-point favorites, the Badgers were billed as big, bad BCS team ready to end the Horned Frogs’ run.
Cinderella stories, by definition, are supposed to end when the clock strikes midnight, not make the game-winning play on the two-point conversion well into the early morning hours.
But therein lies the problem, TCU is no Cinderella.
“Give all the credit in the world to TCU, that is not just lip service,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said in his opening statement. “That is a very good football team. They’re undefeated for a reason.”
Even so, that hardly takes the sting out of the loss for Wisconsin. They put together one of the best seasons in program history, but came up short when it mattered most.
They’ll always own a share of the 2010 Big Ten title, but the 2011 Rose Bowl belonged to the TCU Horned Frogs.
But through the disappointment and frustration, the tears and the anger, the Badgers remain focused, and focused on the same thing that got them to the Rose Bowl in the first place. Wisconsin is prepared to take this loss, evaluate it, learn from it, and get better heading into next season because of it.
Even Watt, who had broken down just moments earlier, was not going to sit and sulk.
“The Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl,” Watt said definitively. “I haven’t made my decision, but if I’m back [or] if I go, the Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl. I don’t know if it will be next year, but Coach Bielema is an outstanding football coach, the Wisconsin football program does things the right way, and Coach Alvarez leads the athletic department the right way.
“No doubt about it, the Badgers will be back. They’ll be back better than ever, and when they come back, they’ll win.”
PASADENA — Many times, in talking about what his team did to get to a share of the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl bid, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema went back to their Oct. 2 loss at Michigan State.
As he saw it, Bielema’s team managed an 11-1 record with big wins over then No. 1 Ohio State and on the road at Iowa because of what they learned from the Badgers’ loss to the Spartans. Had it not been for that game, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
Ironically enough, nearly three months later, the issues that cost Wisconsin in its only regular season loss were much the same problems they had in the Rose Bowl against TCU. The Badgers couldn’t get off the field on third down and left plenty of points on the board through missed opportunities in the close loss.
“I don’t think anybody can beat us but ourselves,” said left guard John Moffitt. “I think we beat ourselves today. We didn’t do what we needed to do.”
From the beginning — literally as Montee Ball ripped off a 40-yard run on the first play from scrimmage — the TCU defense struggled to stop the potent Wisconsin offense. It was the Badgers themselves that did most of the work in keeping points off the scoreboard.
Unfortunately for the Big Ten champions, they followed Ball’s big run — which brought them form their own 32-yard line to the TCU 28 — with a false start penalty on Nick Toon. When the drive came to an end, the Badgers put three points on the board on a 30-yard Philip Welch field goal, which came on 4th-and-8 at the 13-yard line.
On the previous play, Toon added a second mistake, dropping a pass over the middle. Had he not been called for the false start penalty, however, the Badgers would have been in a 1st-and-Goal situation on that series, rather than 1st-and-10 at the 15.
“What got us here was clean execution and clean disciplined football,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “We didn’t do that today all around, myself included.”
Tolzien, normally as efficient a quarterback as you’ll find, went just 12-of-21 for the game, passing for 159 yards while getting sacked twice.
On their first drive of the game, Wisconsin left a potential touchdown drive out there, but managed to salvage it with a field goal. When they opened the second quarter with another long drive, they weren’t so lucky.
After moving the ball down the field from their own 23-yard-line to just outside the red zone, Wisconsin faced 4th-and-3 at the TCU 22-yard line. Trailing 14-10, Bielema sent Welch out once again for the 39-yard attempt. He missed it, wide left, for another three points left on the board.
“I just think we missed out on a lot of opportunities that we had,” left tackle Gabe Carimi said. “It’s really just missed opportunities through and through.”
The missed opportunities and sloppy play were not limited to the offense, either.
A pass interference call on Devin Smith played a role in TCU matching Wisconsin’s early field goal with a 10-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that took less than 4 1/2 minutes off the clock.
On the first play following Welch’s missed field goal, a pass intended for Jeremy Kerley went through Henry’s hands over the middle. While he broke up the pass effectively, it was a very catchable ball for Henry.
Whereas the Badgers continually missed out on opportunities and left plenty of points on the board, the Horned Frogs always seemed to make the right plays at the right time. In the end, that made a big difference in a game decided by just two points.
“It is definitely unfortunate man, but sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces,” Henry said of the loss. “They made a few more plays than we did. But this team fought hard every step of the way, and hats off to my teammates. But TCU, they did a tremendous job and unfortunately, they just made a few more plays than we did.”
MADISON — One of the biggest debates since the Badgers earned a Rose Bowl berth has been focused on the distribution of carries among three running backs.
Do you go with what’s working in Montee Ball and James White? Or do you rely on your veteran running back John Clay, who just happens to have a Big Ten offensive player of the year award to his credit?
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema may have answered those questions Sunday night, when he met with reporters.
“Right now, Montee would be our starting running back,” Bielema said, matter of factly. “John has to wait for a few other guys to get in. Montee’s playing as good of football as anybody. No question.”
Well that sure seems to clear things up. Or does it?
With three weeks remaining until the Rose Bowl, it would not be out of the question for Bielema to change his mind and put Clay in the No. 1 spot. After all, he did say “right now” when referring to Ball as his starter.
While all three running backs have clearly expressed their support for one another, they never stop competing for carries. The idea that they have to work in practice to touch the ball in the game is not lost on the players either.
“I’d like to get my spot back, like how we were in the beginning of the year,” Clay said. “But I’ve just got to work for it. The guys played a heck of a few games when I was out, so I’ve just got to prove it again.”
Another thing that people can’t help but notice when looking ahead to the matchup with TCU is the potential for Wisconsin to have as many as three backs with 1,000 yards rushing on the year.
“Hopefully we can all get to it in this Rose Bowl game,” White added. “I don’t think any school’s ever done that before.”
White leads the way with 1,029 after another big performance against Northwestern, with Clay and Ball not far behind. Even after missing so much time, Clay needs just 64 yards to give the Badgers a second 1,000-yard rusher.
Ball’s chances aren’t as strong, but 136 yards certainly is not out of the question for the sophomore. When you consider he’s rushed for 127, 167, 173 and 178 yards against Purdue, Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern, it would almost be a surprise for Ball to come up shy of the mark.
Add his apparent status as the starting running back and his chances certainly improve even more. It’s not really something that he’s focusing on, though.
“First and foremost, the goal is to come out with a victory,” Ball said. “But it wouldn’t be a bad thing to crack 1,000. It’s definitely something that’s in the back of my mind and it’s going to motivate me to run even harder.”
In an ideal scenario, a big first half by Clay and the Badgers could give Wisconsin a big lead, with two of three backs over 1,000 yards on the year.
If that were to happen, how would those two running backs feel about deferring to Ball, to let him become the third to reach the milestone?
“Oh yeah, get his 1,000 yards, too,” Clay said. “He worked hard this whole season, so we might as well feed him the ball.”
Bielema was not so quick to embrace the idea of boosting Ball’s carries to get him to the 1,000-yard mark.
With his focus on winning, and not just playing in, the Rose Bowl, he expected to do whatever was needed to win.
“It’s obviously very attainable, but it’s not on our game plan list,” Bielema said. “The awards we’re getting and the recognition we get is a byproduct of what we do, and that’s going to be one of those same things.”
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.”