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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.”


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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.”

‘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.”

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.”