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Notes: Third downs critical on D

November 7, 2010 Comments off

WEST LAFAYETTE – Most of the focus after the Badgers’ second half turnaround led to a 34-13 victory was on the turnovers, which seemed to spark the entire team.

Simple execution may have had something to do with it, too.

In the first half, Wisconsin ran into a familiar problem as it struggled to stop Purdue on third downs. The Boilermakers were 6 for 9 on third down conversions, as the UW defense struggled to get off the field and give its offense an opportunity to put point on the board.

“We knew the only way we were going to win this ballgame was getting off the field on third downs, and we were able to do that in the second half,” said linebacker Culmer St. Jean, who shifted the momentum with a third quarter interception.

The Boilermakers’ converting on two-thirds of their third-down attempts was even better than the 9 of 18 mark put up by Michigan State as they handed Wisconsin its only loss early last month.

If the Badgers didn’t turn things around after halftime, they were likely headed for a second road loss in Big Ten play. Fortunately, as head coach Bret Bielema said in his postgame press conference, they didn’t need anything resembling superhuman effort to turn things around.

“It was just about execution,” St. Jean said. “In the first half, we had people there and we weren’t tackling. That was one of the things that we stressed going into this game, we knew we were going to have guys in space and we had to get them down. We weren’t able to do that in the first half, and in the second half we just swarmed and kept getting the ball.”

In particular, defensive end J.J. Watt pointed to the team’s performance on first and second down defensively, which made third downs more difficult for Wisconsin and easier to convert for Purdue.

When they went out in the second half, the Badgers forced the Boilermakers to pick up more yardage on third down, averaging 3rd-and-5 on 10 attempts. Purdue went 3-for-10 on third down in the second half.

“When you’re putting them in 3rd-and-long, you’re going to give them tough situations,” Watt said. “We did that well in the second half and obviously that paid off.”

Injury updates

For safety Jay Valai, the bye week wasn’t quite as beneficial to his health as it was for most of his teammates.

After aggravating his right calf on Wednesday, the senior further injured it Thursday, partially tearing the muscle. When the game rolled around Saturday, he was noticeably limited by the injury, especially in the first half.

Eventually, the coaches were forced to sub Shelton Johnson in for Valai.

“Being a senior, you always want to be on the field, but at that point in time, I was more hurting the team than helping the team, so I think that was a smart decision,” Valai said. “It felt a little better in the second half, but it’s still something I need to work on.”

Amid the Badgers’ troubles in the first half, Watt appeared to have suffered an injury, leaving him on the Ross-Ade Stadium turf a little longer than everyone else.

He got up and walked off under his own power, but nonetheless, provided a scare to the Wisconsin players, coaches and fans. Afterward, he expressed little concern over the shoulder injury.

“I was extended out and I dove, and my shoulder kind of clicked in and out,” Watt said. “I’m feeling pretty good now. I’ve still got a little bit of adrenaline going, so we’ll see tomorrow, but I don’t see it holding me out at all.”

While there was plenty to celebrate about in the second half of the 34-13 victory, Wisconsin saw center Peter Konz go down with an injury. As he walked off the field afterward, Konz appeared to be in significant pain, while using crutches and wearing a boot on his right leg.

According to Bielema, the sophomore aggravated the right ankle he injured against Ohio State, which forced senior Bill Nagy to take over at center once again.

Quotable

St. Jean on his second-half interception

“First I went to my drops and it was an out route, so I knew I wasn’t able to get there. We had extra leverage on that side so I just dropped back and read the quarterback and he took me right to the ball.”

Watt on second-half comeback

“It says we have some good character, we have guys who understand the situation, when we get down we can’t get out. We came back in the second half and played like a first-place team plays, and that’s what we need to do from here on out.”

Watt on the team’s first-half play

“It wasn’t necessarily flat, we just didn’t tackle very well on defense and didn’t put together a very good half.”

John Moffitt on the first half struggles

“I think we came out the first half, there were a lot of looks we didn’t see [before], we weren’t executing right away, and maybe a little hangover from the two weeks off. But you don’t really want to lean on that excuse, because you’ve got to be ready to play at all times.”

Moffitt on the change after halftime

“Obviously, the second half, the execution was there, we were doing the right things, the defense looked great and that made the difference.”

Moffitt on what the comeback says about the team

“Guys didn’t quit. The guys fight to the end and that’s what we need because the game’s not over until the last second ticks off the clock and I think guys understand that.”

Mike Taylor on the team’s slow start

“Yeah, you could say we were flat. It took us a little while to kind of get warmed up I guess, but we came out excited in the second half and took care of business.”

Antonio Fenelus on the turnovers in the second half

“It was very big. In the first half we didn’t come out and do as best as we could. We got talked to after that and they just told us to go out there and just play to the best of our abilities and that’s what I went out there and did.”

Fenelus on getting two turnovers in one game

“It feels real good. I haven’t had a pick since the third game of the season, so it feels good to be just go out there and be able to make a play on the ball.”

Montee Ball on the shift in momentum

“We came in here, got our mistakes down and had a chance to talk to everybody. Coach had a chance to talk to us, and we knew we needed to come out and play Wisconsin football and we get focused because we weren’t in the first half. Once we came out and we knew our assignments, we went out and did it.

“In the first half, I had to knock the dust off a bit from the bye week and we all had to. But once we came out of the locker room, we knew ‘This is our half, and we’ve got to produce.'”

Scott Tolzien on the offense

“Offensively it was a struggle for us, and that’s going to happen at times. But I thought the defense was just tremendous, especially in the second half.”

Tolzien on the team’s slow start

“What frustrates me is, that was one of the things that we emphasized in the bye week. We wanted to start fast because that’s always a concern when you have a week off. We didn’t do that.”

Badgers ready for Ross-Ade

November 5, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – As stadiums go, Ross-Ade Stadium is never going to be mistaken for one of the great, historic venues in college football. Even so, Purdue has won 254 games there all-time against just 149 losses, including the Boilermakers’ 3-1 home record this year.

In fact, just last year Purdue knocked off then-No. 7 Ohio State at home, 26-18, in a stunning upset. That win came on the heels of a five-game losing streak for the Boilermakers, who have lost each of their last two games, on the road, in blowout fashion.

Add the Badgers’ recent success, and Wisconsin looks to be headed into a classic trap game.

“We’re well aware of it,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “I think the main thing is that it’s just another Big Ten game. You just look at last year, they knocked off Ohio State.

“Every year there seems to be that game where someone gets nipped from behind. We need to approach this game like any other game. The second you take your foot off the gas pedal and start relaxing, that’s when you start to get some adversity.”

Unfortunately for the Badgers, they don’t have any past experience to lean on against Purdue. While they shutout the Boilermakers last year, 37-0, the last time Wisconsin traveled to Purdue was in 2006, when Bret Bielema was a first-year head coach and UW’s current fifth-year seniors were in their redshirt seasons.

Junior defensive end J.J. Watt will be making his second appearance at Ross-Ade, having played there once in his career at Central Michigan.

As such, they’ll need to rely on their experiences in other Big Ten stadiums, rather than recall past games as Ross-Ade.

“I think anybody can beat anybody,” said John Moffitt, who redshirted in 2006. “You have to respect teams and you have to especially respect teams at home. I think we’re doing that with our preparation and we need to continue to do that.”

Not only has the team not played in West Lafayette in four years, they’ve also not made a bus trip as long as the one scheduled for this weekend. A 271-mile drive, the drive from Camp Randall to Ross-Ade is said to take five hours and six minutes, according to Google Maps.

On a bus, that easily translates to at least a six-hour drive. And that’s assuming the buses make it through the Chicago area without significant delay.

“That’s something that I don’t like at all,” free safety Aaron Henry said. “I understand we’ve got to do it, but six hours man, I can’t sit in a classroom for 50 minutes, let alone on a bus for six hours.

“It’s something we’ve got to do, so I don’t really have a choice in that, and we’ve just got to roll with it. I’m not really a big fan of bussing for six hours, though. Hopefully, if we take care of business, we won’t be bussing back.”

Confined to seat on the bus for the length of nearly two football games, the Badgers will need to find some ways to occupy their time. Homework, music, movies and sleep are among the most popular time-wasters for bus trips.

Of course, they’re typically more like three to four hours, such as is the case with the trip to Iowa City.

“I’m going to probably be doing a ton of things,” Henry said. “Probably on the phone listening to music, going over some of my notes, writing up some of my interests on the blog that I have. There’s no telling what I could be doing, man.

“Once you focus on one thing, that thing is going to die out eventually. And me, I’m always trying to find what’s new. But hopefully sleep will be my biggest friend on that trip.”

Running back John Clay had a simple answer to what could make the bus trip better for him.

“Having my own seat,” Clay said with a laugh. “If I can sit in the back and have my own seat, I’ll just be thinking about the plays that are going to get called and thinking about making a big play every time I get a chance.”

Tolzien makes most of 2nd chances

October 29, 2010 Comments off

MADISON – Last season, in his first year as the Badgers’ starting quarterback, Scott Tolzien turned in his worst performances in consecutive weeks against Ohio State and Iowa, the Big Ten’s two toughest defenses.

A year later, Tolzien has recorded back-to-back strong performances while guiding his team to Wisconsin’s two biggest wins since head coach Bret Bielema took over the program. In particular, Tolzien’s response to interceptions has been a key difference.

“I think I just played within myself more this year and didn’t force things,” Tolzien said. “I just took what the defense was giving me and just tried to be patient and not trying to make too many plays when the situation didn’t call for it.

“A year of experience is big if you take it the right way and learn from your past experiences. Having an extra year under my belt helped a lot.”

In 2010, Tolzien threw two crucial pick sixes in Columbus, while being intercepted three more times in a winnable game against Iowa at home a week later. This year, Tolzien was picked off by each team once, but responded admirably both times.

That difference has not gone unnoticed by his head coach, either.

“I’ve seen his response to his two interceptions be about as positive as you can,” Bielema said. “I noticed at one point, I believe it was second down on the series that actually got to four downs on the last drive, and after second down he was clapping his hands. He smacked somebody on the back. He knew he was going to have success.

“That’s the part that’s probably separated him, in my mind. I always knew he was great. He’s always going to have great academics. He’s always going to say the right things. He’s always going to do the right things. But when things are hard or when you have a bad play, how are you going to respond?”

After being intercepted in the second quarter last week against Ohio State while leading 21-3, Tolzien responded by not turning the ball over again, while also leading his team on a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives.

Trailing 27-24 in Iowa City, Tolzien was intercepted on a misguided first-down pass, which led to a Hawkeyes field goal and put UW down 30-24 with 8:35 remaining in the game. On the next drive, Tolzien completed 3 of 5 passes while also rushing for six yards.

More importantly, he guided the Badgers down the field, 80 yards for the game winning touchdown run by running back Montee Ball. After Tolzien’s mistake played a major factor in consecutive losses last season, his poise and ability to continue to make plays after throwing an interception was integral in two major Wisconsin victories.

“We got a win, and I thought I played good enough to give us a chance to win,” Tolzien said. “That’s kind of a simple statement, but I think really that’s how quarterbacks are measured is getting wins. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty and sometimes you’ve got to put more on your shoulders, but whatever the case may be, you’ve got to win.

“I’m not going to downplay it. It’s huge because it’s two big wins in the Big Ten, and to beat two tough opponents like that, it’s pretty gratifying.”

Clay, Bielema focused on offensive line before OSU

October 18, 2010 Comments off

MADISON — Standing behind John Clay with his helmet off Saturday, you’d see the following numbers in his head: 68, 74, 66, 70 and 58. Lining up in the Wisconsin backfield, Clay sees the same set of numbers every time he takes the ball.

It took Clay about 20 minutes of work in the barbershop to show his appreciation for what his teammates do. Within the game’s first five minutes, Clay was thanking them again.

Clay burst through a big hole created by the Wisconsin offensive line and rushed 14 yards for the touchdown. Less than 12 minutes of game time later, Clay found the end zone again. As the Badgers led 21-0 over the No. 1 team in the nation, hard work by Clay and the offensive line paid off in a big way.

“He practiced as hard as I’ve ever seen him practice and really executed ball security, and he gave the tribute to the five offensive linemen, shaving their numbers in his head,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said of Clay. “It was a way of John saying, ‘I respect what you guys have done.’ His success is a lot about what they do, so again, just a good example of team chemistry.”

Wisconsin’s offensive line guided Clay to 104 yards rushing on 21 carries, as well as those two first half touchdowns.

Afterward, as he does after every game, Clay credited his success to the hard work up front by Peter Konz, John Moffitt, Gabe Carimi, Kevin Zeitler and Ricky Wagner.

“I just told them they’ve been working hard for me all week and this whole year, so I told them I’d do something special when the big game came,” Clay said. “It worked out in a good way.”

With the Badgers facing one of the toughest defensive lines in the country in Ohio State, Clay was not the only one focused on the offensive line this week.

Knowing the battle in the trenches could very easily determine the outcome of the game against the top-ranked Buckeyes, the head coach looked to give his front five a little added motivation.

“I did challenge them,” Bielema said. “I don’t do that very often as a head coach. I don’t want to set kids up for failure. If I do something like that, it’s usually that I have a really strong belief that it’s going to come through.

“Everybody made a big deal about the 29 games that Ohio State had played without a 100-yard rusher. I threw it in those guys’ faces all week. I threw it at our running backs, but it all starts up front for us. For us to have success, we have to play well at the offensive line.”

Konz, Moffitt, Carimi, Zeitler and Wagner answered the challenge in a big way. Not only did they pave the way for Clay to become the first opposing player in 30 games to rush for 100 yards or more against OSU, they also kept their quarterback upright.

Attempting 16 passes on the day, Scott Tolzien was not sacked a single time. But did the offensive line need to challenged?

“I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question,” Moffitt answered. “We play our game and we always try to play our game. Obviously, when the head coach calls you out, you just have to raise the bar, and I think that’s what we did.

“It feels great. We did the right things and we won the game.”

Minimizing mistakes key for Tolzien

October 13, 2010 Comments off

MADISON — One year ago, Scott Tolzien learned just how tough it was to be a quarterback in the Big Ten Conference.

With four minutes to go in the first quarter of his third conference game as a starter, Tolzien dropped back to pass as his team looked to strike first against No. 9 Ohio State.

Suddenly, the pocket collapsed around the him. With three Buckeye defenders surrounding him, Tolzien fired a pass over the middle, hoping to avoid the first-down sack. Due to the pressure, his pass sailed well over the head of receiver Nick Toon, and into the arms of Kirk Coleman.

Instead of putting points on the board first at Ohio Stadium, UW quickly found itself trailing 7-0 after Coleman took Tolzien’s pass 89 yards the other way for the score.

“I just threw it late across the middle and threw it high,” Tolzien told reporters afterward.

That interception was just the beginning of what turned into a long day for Tolzien. Down 14-10 early in the second half, Tolzien found himself under pressure again, this time on second-and-17.

As Tolzien tried to find Isaac Anderson near the right sideline, Jermale Hines undercut the pass, tipping it to himself before finding the end zone and pushing the Buckeyes’ lead into double digits.

“I thought I could get it over the top of him, and it was too close to call,” Tolzien said. “At that point you shouldn’t throw it.”

In those two games, Tolzien’s pass efficiency ratings were 97.78 and 84.05, respectively. Since then, he’s averaged a 160.22 rating.

Just twice since that two-game stretch has Tolzien’s rating been less than 140: against Purdue on Halloween last season, and two weeks ago at Michigan State.

A little more than a year after the loss in Columbus, Tolzien sees his struggles at Ohio State in a positive light.

“It’s a part of my history and something that I’ve learned from,” Tolzien said. “You’ve got to be smart with the football. Looking back on it, I can almost view it as a blessing now just to have gone through that. You just see the way that affects the swing of the game.”

Based on his numbers, the biggest thing Tolzien would appear to have learned over the past 12 months is how to limit those kind of mistakes.

Following that two-interception performance, Tolzien added three more a week later in the Badgers’ loss at home to Iowa, giving him five in Wisconsin’s back-to-back losses. In 12 games since, the Badgers signal caller has thrown the ball away just five times, and never more than once in a game.

“Scott’s a great player,” Toon said. “He doesn’t make very many mistakes, but everybody makes mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.

“Obviously those were two plays we all wish we could have gotten back, but you’ve just got to move forward and clean it up for the next time.”

With the top-ranked Buckeyes boasting the Big Ten’s best pass defense while allowing the second-fewest points per game in the conference, Tolzien will face one of the toughest challenges of his career.

If he once again finds himself in the unenviable situation of having thrown an interception returned for a touchdown, it’s a pretty safe bet it won’t happen twice this time.

“It’s one thing if the first one happened, but don’t let it affect you in a way where you got to learn to make sure the second one doesn’t happen, and vice versa,” said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. “During the course of the game, it’s not what happens, it’s how you react to what happens. And he learned himself how to kind of turn those situations from negatives to positives.”

Five things to watch: Minnesota

October 12, 2010 Comments off

MADISON — It’s Axe week. With the way the Badgers played in East Lansing, the rivalry game against Minnesota could not have come at a better time for UW. After suffering their first loss to Michigan State last week, Wisconsin’s focus is on keeping the Axe.

Before things kick off at Camp Randall today, BadgerBlitz.com offers a number of things to watch during today’s game, as well as a prediction.

1.) Can they get off the field?

When the Spartans needed a big play in the Big Ten opener, more often than not the Badgers were not able to stop them from getting it. Out of 18 third down conversion attempts, Michigan State was successful nine times.

More importantly, despite creating three turnovers, the Wisconsin defense forced MSU to punt just once the entire game. While the Gophers are not on the same level as the Spartans, a similar output by the defense would not bode well for UW.

To beat Adam Weber and Minnesota, the Wisconsin defense led by J.J. Watt will need to do a far better job of imposing its will, controlling the game and setting up the offense with opportunities to score.

2.) Under pressure

Everyone focused on third downs last week, but the real issue was a lack of success stopping Michigan State on first and second down. A lot of that had to do with an inability to pressure Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins.

More often than not, Cousins threw the ball when he wanted to or was ready to, rather than when the UW defense forced him to do so. With another of the Big Ten’s top signal callers in Weber coming to town Saturday, pressure will be important against Minnesota.

The Gophers, along with the Badgers, are tied fourth in the Big Ten with just five sacks allowed this season. The Spartans, on the other hand, have allowed more sacks (11) than every team in the conference other than Northwestern.

It certainly won’t be easy, but the Badgers need to make Weber feel uncomfortable every time he drops back to pass.

3.) What happened to the passing game?

Wisconsin three non-running back stars on offense — Scott Tolzien, Nick Toon, and Lance Kendricks — were disappointing in the Big Ten opener, to put it lightly. In such a big game, those three should be expected to step up, not put up their worst performances of the season.

Minnesota’s defense has struggled to stop both the run and pass this season, but you can be sure they’ll focus more on the former this week. To open things up for John Clay and James White, Tolzien will need to be better than 11-for-25 for 127 yards.

4.) Not So Special Teams

For the second time this season, breakdowns on kick and punt coverage against MSU proved crucial. Against a team like Minnesota, the last thing Wisconsin needs is to let the Gophers keep things close with a special teams touchdown.

There’s little question that Wisconsin should easily retain the Axe for a seventh straight year. But even a team like Minnesota could make things interesting if the Badgers’ coverage units continue to struggle.

5.) Resurgence of Clay

Over the last two weeks, White has been far and away the better of the two Wisconsin running backs. His speed and quickness make him exactly the kind of dynamic runner the Badgers need to complement Clay.

Unfortunately for all involved, Clay has struggled to hold up his end of the bargain. Aside from a handful of impressive runs of more than 10 yards, Clay has looked slow, hesitant, and simply ineffective.

Perhaps no one in cardinal and white is looking forward to facing the Gophers than Clay. With their rush defense ranking 10th in the conference, Clay should have the perfect opportunity to show he’s still among the best offensive players in the conference.

Schelling’s prediction

On paper, this matchup looks like a 20-point blowout in the Badgers’ favor ready to happen. Minnesota is near the bottom of the conference in points scored and allowed. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is near the top in both.

With the motivation of a disappointing loss a week ago combined with their desire to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Badgers should have no trouble handling the Gophers. Still, a 22-point spread seems like a bit much. The only time UW has covered the spread this season was their 70-3 blowout of Austin Peay.

Keeping that in mind, I like Wisconsin over Minnesota, 38-20.