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‘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.”

Special teams struggle, shine against ASU

September 19, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – Every play matters.

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has worked to instill that mentality in his players, and on Saturday, those players provided him with two perfect examples in big moments.

While the Badgers special teams units struggled in coverage for the most part against Arizona State, two big plays on special teams made all the difference as UW came out on top, 20-19, over Arizona State.

“It’s the difference between good and bad today,” Bielema said. “Every season I reflect back on, there’s a handful of plays that determine a game, that determine a season.”

Following a touchdown that put Wisconsin up 13-10, Sun Devils returner Kyle Middlebrooks took a Philip Welch kickoff from the 4-yard line and raced for the end zone. With no one in front of him, Middlebrooks looked as though he would score to put ASU back on top heading into the locker room.

Enter Shelton Johnson.

After Dezmen Southward slowed Middlebrooks down, Johnson caught him from behind and made the tackle at the 1-yard line, saving a touchdown as the clock ran out on the first half.

“Honestly, I was just running hoping that I could get him,” Johnson said.

The play was remarkably similar to one late in the first quarter, when cornerback Omar Bolden took a Welch kickoff back 97 yards for the touchdown, putting Arizona State up 7-3.

So what was Johnson thinking when it looked to be happening again?

“No, don’t let this happen again,” Johnson said. “That would’ve been the second of the game, and it would have been really deflating going into halftime.”

Johnson’s tackle kept the Badgers up three points at the half, but more importantly, it meant John Clay’s third quarter touchdown put them up 20-13, rather than tying the game at 20 apiece. That proved crucial late in the fourth quarter, when the Sun Devils found the end zone for their only offensive touchdown of the game.

With 4:09 remaining, running back Cameron Marshall ran it in from two yards out, which appeared to tie the game for the second time. Instead, the extra point proved to be the deciding factor in game.

Looking to preserve their lead, the Badgers called for a block scheme they had not used yet this season. It worked out, as senior safety Jay Valai got around the left end and made the most of his 5-foot-9 frame, knocking the kick offline on an all-out dive.

“The PAT block is normally unheard of in college football,” said ASU head coach Dennis Erickson. “In all my career, I’ve never seen something like that. The bottom line is they got someone through.”

It’s hard to argue against the two plays made by Johnson and Valai as being among the biggest of the day for the Badgers.

The two players involved did disagree, however, on who made the more important play.

“Probably Jay’s,” Johnson answered when asked which play was bigger. “If he didn’t make that play, we’re probably still playing right now. I definitely think Jay blocking that kick was a huge, huge impact on this game.”

Valai, on the other hand, preferred his teammate’s touchdown-saving tackle to close out the Badgers’ less-than-stellar first half.

“Shelton’s just being nice — that’s a touchdown,” Valai said. “That’s not one point, Shelton stopped six, seven points right there. Shelton Johnson made a great play, that’s the biggest play of the game.”

The key to both plays, though, was effort.

Once Middlebrooks got into the open field, Johnson and Southward easily could have packed it in and headed to the locker room. In the fourth quarter, Valai could have accepted the Sun Devils were going to tie the game and 20 points apiece and put the burden on the offense to come away with the victory.

Instead, both put together the kind of effort expected out of them by the Wisconsin coaching staff, and in the end, it paid huge dividends.

“Football is a game that is comprised of four quarters, 15 minutes each, 60 minutes of playing time,” Bielema said. “But really it’s 60 minutes of reaction, who reacts better to what happens.”