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Rose Bowl loss an emotional one

January 1, 2011 Comments off

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.”

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Watt’s stellar performance has Badgers smelling Roses

November 28, 2010 Comments off

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.”


Several Badgers among awards finalists

November 24, 2010 Comments off

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.”

Big House brings bad memories

November 18, 2010 Comments off

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.”

Defense stifles Chappell show

November 14, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – No matter how good your offense may be, it is tough to score 83 points without a strong defensive performance.

After giving up 10 points in the first 16 minutes of the game, Wisconsin’s defense stepped up and put together one of its best games of the season. Unfortunately, it will not make as many headlines as the team’s record point total.

“It just allows us to play looser,” said Aaron Henry. “When you know you’re beating a team like that, man, you really want to go out there and make some plays. It may not be a tight game, but you can just go out there and play free.”

That freedom defensively allowed the Badgers to look better against the Hoosiers offense as the game went along.

After an IU field goal tied it at 10-10 just under a minute into the second quarter, UW allowed just 10 more points the rest of the way while tallying 73 more of their own. In the fourth quarter, Henry added six points of his own.

Henry, who scored his third touchdown of the season, picked a great day to do so.

“Aaron Henry, kind of a special day for him,” head coach Bret Bielemasaid. “His mom was here for the first time and I kind of grabbed him last night and made a big deal of it. There’s such good karma and I thought this would be a special day for him. Lo and behold, he gets the pick six, so it’s kind of a neat thing.”

The defense made its presence felt in the second quarter, following the missed field goal from 52 yards by Indiana kicker Mitch Ewald. The long distance attempt was set up by Devin Smith‘s big tackle, which held the Hoosiers to just four yards on 3rd-and-10.

After the Badgers converted for a touchdown on a two-play drive, the Hoosiers next drive was even shorter.

As backup quarterback Edward Wright-Baker took the first snap of the drive, replacing an injured Ben Chappell, fumbled the ball away to defensive end J.J. Watt, who recovered it at the Indiana 29-yard line.

That set up another Montee Ball touchdown, giving UW a 31-10 lead. On the next drive, Wisconsin forced a three-and-out, setting up a fifth touchdown in the half.

When Indiana got the ball with 17 seconds remaining, Watt put the exclamation point on the first half with a tackle in the backfield for a four-yard loss.

“I was pretty jacked up,” Watt said. “I got down to the locker room and I was dead tired. That was a mistake, I should not have run that far. But I was pretty jacked up, they gave the call that was obviously advantageous to me, I got a great TFL and really captured a lot of momentum going into the half.”

With that second-quarter performance the defense gave the Badgers the opportunity to extend the game from a 10-10 tie to a 38-10 lead at the half. Coming out of the locker room, Wisconsin continued to stifle the Indiana offense.

Though they allowed Chappell to connect on 8-of-14 passes early for 63 yards and a touchdown, the Badgers shut down the Big Ten’s leading passing offense, giving up just 63 yards through the air.

IU was slightly more successful on the ground, picking up 90 yards on 14 attempts. With 90 rushing yards compared to 63 passing, Saturday marked the first time this season Indiana picked up more yardage on the ground than in the air.

“It was tremendous,” Henry said of shutting down the passing game. “Just coming into this year, knowing the challenge that we had ahead of us, it was just real exciting for us to go out there and perform the way that we did.

“This is a high-powered offense. They really rely on big plays, they really rely on their wide receivers, and we did a tremendous job in executing the game plan and really shutting their offense down.”

 

‘D’ ready to shut down Chappell

November 12, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – It’s been four weeks since Wisconsin knocked off top-ranked Ohio State in front of a raucous crowd of Badger fans at Camp Randall Stadium.

Finally, after a pair of road wins sandwiched around a bye week, the Badgers return home Saturday to host the Indiana Hoosiers and the Big Ten’s top passing attack.

“It feels like it’s been a month since Lerner’s helmet got taken and we were running around the field,” said safety Jay Valai, referring to the postgame celebration and backup kicker Alec Lerner. “It’s exciting to go back out there, it’s going to be a good atmosphere and I can’t wait.”

One of the highlights of Wisconsin’s last home game was the opening kickoff, which David Gilreath took 96 yards for a touchdown, setting the tone for what was to come. Thanks to the evening start, the stadium was already packed, compared with the thousands of empty seats typically associated with the first quarter at Camp Randall.

With Ben Chappell and Indiana’s vaunted passing attack coming to town, head coach Bret Bielema – who sent a special message out Thursday to student season ticket holders – and the Badgers hope to see fans arrive on time once again.

“If you’re not in the seats before the first couple minutes against Ohio State, you never would have saw David Gilreath’s kickoff return,” Bielema said. “If we could get the student section going [from the start], I think it would be a very, very special thing to close out the rest of the year.”

Following the team’s practice Wednesday, defensive end J.J. Watt echoed his coach’s sentiments.

“We can’t wait to get in front of the home fans, hopefully they’re as rowdy and they were against Ohio State,” Watt said. “It would nice if they could show up on time this week, and it would be much appreciated.”

Aside from asking students to arrive more promptly for the final two home games, the focus this week for Wisconsin, at least on the defensive end, is shutting down the pass.

In the Badgers’ 55-20 victory at Indiana in 2008, Chappell tossed for 126 yards and a touchdown, completing 11-of-20 passes in the first half before missing the remainder of the game due to injury. Following a Chappell touchdown run that put Indiana within one point at 21-20, Wisconsin scored 34 unanswered points over the game’s final 34 minutes.

Last year, playing at Memorial Stadium once again, Chappell connected on 25-of-35 attempts, passing for 323 yards and three touchdowns.

Wisconsin’s defense came up with two interceptions and a sack, all three of which played a major role in the Badgers’ 31-28 victory. This season, interceptions have been easier for opposing defense to come by than sacks against Indiana.

Chappell, who has attempted 378 passes, has been intercepted eight times, which equals the number of sacks allowed by the IU offensive line through nine games.

“They’re an extremely efficient passing offense,” Watt said. “Their quarterback gets the ball out very quickly, so it’s going to be tough to get a lot of sacks on him. I believe they have 380 passing attempts on the year and he’s only given up eight or nine sacks. So he gets the ball out quick and he knows how to avoid the rush.

“We need to get after him. We definitely need to get after their quarterback and try to rattle him.”

If Watt and his fellow defensive linemen are unable to get much pressure on Chappell, the pressure to stop the Hoosiers offense, which averages 27.6 points per game, will fall primarily on the secondary.

Indiana averages nearly 44 passes per game, as opposed to 29 rushes per game. Comparatively, the Wisconsin offense rushes 42 times with 22 passes per game.

Facing an increased workload this week, the secondary looks forward to the challenge.

“Schematically it changes our approach, but defensively it really doesn’t,” safety Aaron Henry said. “We’ve got to go out there and do what we’ve been doing the whole season. This is just another challenge for our secondary to go out their and showcase our abilities. They are the No. 1 passing attack in the Big Ten, but it’s an opportunity for us, so that’s how we’re approaching it.”

Badgers remember veterans

November 11, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – In football, things often are described in militaristic terms, with the game frequently described as a war or battle. In reality, the sport and its players pale in comparison to those that dedicate their lives to service in our armed forces.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the major hostilities of World War I formally ended with the Germans signing the Armistice. Since 1919, Nov. 11 has set aside to remember the nation’s veterans.

On this Veterans Day, several members of the University of Wisconsin football team will honor their family members that are serving or have served their country in the military.

“I’ll be thinking of my grandpa for sure,” running back Montee Ball said. “Last year, against Wofford, he passed away and that was really rough, so I’m most definitely going to think about him.

“I think he was in the Air Force, in the Korean War, but he didn’t really talk about it much. It was rough for him. I miss him a lot, and I’m definitely going to be thinking of him.”

Ball missed that game last year against Wofford as he dealt with the loss of a beloved family member. This week, he’ll be playing with his grandfather in mind.

A common theme among the Badgers was grandfathers who served in various wars, but who did not talk much about it with their grandchildren. Among those are linebacker Mike Taylor whose grandfather served in the Air Force during World War II, but died before Taylor was born, and safety Aaron Henry whose grandfather dropped out of high school to serve his country.

Another is running back James White, who was not sure which branch of the military his grandfather, who passed in 2005, served in. White’s cousin recently joined the Marine Corps, giving him another family member to honor on this day.

Like White, quarterback Scott Tolzien has a close relative currently serving in the military.

“My brother is currently at an Air Force base in Biloxi, Miss., right now,” Tolzien said. “He flies the C-130, a big cargo plane.”

Tolzien’s grandfathers each served during World War II, his paternal grandfather in the Navy, and his maternal grandfather in the Army.

With three close family members having ties to the armed forces, Veterans Day is important one for Tolzien.

“It’s close to my heart,” Tolzien said. I think it’s important and it should be that way for everyone really. We’re pretty blessed to have it the way we have it because of the people that are serving and protecting our country.

“Hopefully everyone will take a second out of their day at least to think about it. I think it would be a shame if you didn’t take some time to think about it on Thursday just because there’s so many people that have served our country.”

Safety Jay Valai has two cousins currently serving, one in the Coast Guard and another in the Marine Corps.

When asked which branch he would choose if he had the chance, Valai debated a few before going with the Air Force, though he would also consider the Army and Marine Corps.

“If I could swim, I’d do it all like a Marine, but I can’t swim, little known fact about me,” Valai said. “So, I guess I’d go with the Air Force. If I got to fly an airplane, I’d do Air Force.”

Defensive end J.J. Watt was one of the few whose grandfather had told him stories of his time in the military, but Watt still was unsure which branch he served in. What he did know was that his grandfather served in the Korean War, and fought in the Battle of Porkchop Hill.

Beyond that, Watt said he has told him plenty of good war stories, despite never specifying which branch of the armed forces in which he served.

“I’m definitely going to give him a call and thank him. And I’m going to put on my Twitter a thank you to all the veterans,” Watt said. “I’m thankful to have him around still obviously and thankful for everything he did. We wouldn’t be doing what we do if it weren’t for those people, so we need to thank them every chance we can.”