After tipping a fourth-down pass in last year's season opener to secure the victory, Maragos registered an interception in double overtime that set up UW's come-from-behind win over Fresno State. Those first two weeks set the tone for the season and gave the Badgers a boost for a season that ended with a bowl victory and a 10-3 record.
In our weekly segment, we talk with Maragos on how Valai's play could set a similar tone and analyze the areas where Wisconsin needs to improve heading into its final non-conference tune-up.
It's a reoccurring theme with this team and it seems like this squad can't have too much adversity. Bielema has talked in years past about a couple plays make the difference between a good season and a great season. How can Jay Valai's block kick or Shelton Johnson's tackle boost a team going forward?
Maragos: I think with a team like Arizona State, they aren't a team that is up the par with the Badgers from top to bottom. But you look at the kind of athletes that they have, they can make a game out of anything. Steven Threet is a good player and a Big Ten recruit, they have great skill players around him that can do a lot of things and they can play tough in those big-time games. I think plays like that are good for those guys. You look at the dynamic of the season. If you drop a game like that at home early in the season, a lot of things can sputter out. I think back to '07 and that loss at Michigan, the season went downhill for the rest of the year. The game shouldn't have come down to that, but the win against ASU can keep the team on the right track for the rest of the season.
You are a guy that has played on special teams throughout your career. That having been said, the argument could be made that Arizona State should have won that game based solely on its special teams. What needs to change on Wisconsin's special teams to make them more effective at stopping the big returns?
Maragos:No doubt. I think first and foremost, the identity of a special teams player is a guy that is relentless. You look at what you are doing out there, it's pretty much a one-on-one battle with a guy that is trying to block you. Somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose. You have to have the mindset that you are going to beat that guy and win that battle. I think it's really easy to say that you are going to run down the field and try to make a play. Now being in the NFL and understanding the dynamics of it, you see how important it is. Those kinds of plays can change the game, like you saw on Saturday. You need a group with the right mentality that want to get the job done.
Were you surprised at how Arizona State exploited a lot of problems on Wisconsin?
Maragos:Not really. With an offense that is dynamic like they are with some good skill players, they can make some people miss and get some good yards. They are going to score the point. The defense only gave up 12 points, which was good. They were bending, but they weren't breaking. There are a couple drives where Wisconsin was being driven on but when (ASU) got to the redzone and (UW) needed to make a play, they made the play. Bolden obviously had that long run and that's guys getting caught in the wrong defense and guys missing assignments. Those are things that can really change field position.
You agreed that the defense did not play particularly well against San Jose State. UW's defense only gave up 211 passing yards against ASU. Do you think Wisconsin took a big step forward or just a small step?
Maragos:I think the secondary is still trying to find their rhythm and their gel together. With players becoming full-time starters and Aaron Henry learning to play with Valai for the first time, I think they are still learning how to play with each other. They are continuing to play, they are flying around and they are coming together. The linebacker situation doesn't help a group trying to find an identity, but they'll find it and it'll click when they keep playing together. Once it clicks, then you can see them start to roll.
What do you think some of the biggest things holding back the cornerbacks from taking a step forward are?
Maragos:I think the biggest thing as a defensive back, you have to go out there and have a mentality that is tough as nails. I think that's why you see DBs that maybe are the fastest or maybe not the most talented, but those are the guys that are thick-skinned, have a swagger and play physical. You need all those things as a DB. You can sit back on your heels. All those guys go and compete. I think Antonio Fenelus is a young guy and is starting to come into his own. I think Aaron Henry is learning his new position and becoming comfortable. I think Niles Brinkley and Valai are building off of some things, too. I don't think they are too far away from clicking.
Being around this group, how tough do you think this group is? Are they tough enough or do they need to get tougher?
Maragos:It's not so much they need to get tougher because all those guys want to win. I know those guys personally and they want it, and they are putting the work in to get it. I think the big thing is getting comfortable with each other, connecting between the corners and safeties, learning their leverage points, all those things. When you really get comfortable and situated as a defensive back, that's when you can go out there and start flying around.
When you saw Shelton Johnson last year, is he a guy that can really push a fifth-year senior like Jay for playing time?
Maragos:When you look at Shelton, he has very good straight line speed. The kid can run. I think the biggest thing for him is to strive for excellence on every play. You see a flash and make a big play, but I think what's going to help him, because he has all the tools to be a great player, is to find consistency and find the details of the defense and the position. If he can do that with all the things he is equipped with, he's going to be a good player.
If you were still a player at Wisconsin, what would you think the biggest problem this team has that needs to be corrected before going into conference play?
Maragos:I would say the biggest thing right now is a sense of urgency to take care of every play. Coach Bielema has instilled in us that 1-0 mentality and focus on one play at a time. As I look at the guys, they play well most of the time, but then there's this one play that gets everything out of rhythm and disrupts things. The big thing is playing consistent and taking care of all those details. Like the fourth quarter when it was third-and-one, the offense couldn't convert and had to punt. Things like that that put Arizona State in a good situation instead of UW running the clock. That left the door open. Understanding that the third-and-one is the most important play of the drive is something that the group needs to realize. They made the plays in the end but against better teams, it's going to be tougher.
What was the most impressive thing on the defensive side of the ball you saw?
Maragos:Coach Bielema always talks about one guy down, another guy in. I think Kevin Rouse really stepped up his game. He had a huge sack and a quarterback hurry. Obviously Borland and Taylor are the guys looked at as playmakers, but Borland was down and Rouse stepped up and made plays. That was big for the defense, and I am really excited to see how he develops. Louis Nzegwu was playing pretty well, rushing the passer really well and it was good to see him compete. Those guys are workers, doing what they need to do to help the team.
The schedule sets up virtually the same way as he set up last year, playing an FCS opponent before playing Michigan State. What was the mindset of you and your team going into the game because you won handedly, but there were a lot of fumbles and a lot of things were really sloppy? How challenging is it to prepare for a lesser opponent with that big opener a week away?
Maragos:It's a different dynamic. I think you really have to focus because you want to have a good feel going into the Big Ten. You have to play fast, shut them down early and finish it. You can't let them stick around because they will feel they have the ability to beat you in the end. It's important to take care of the details, go play in rhythm and feel good about going in Big Ten play.
I remember study a lot on Wofford not because we were looking or thinking ahead, but they had a unique triple-option offense. We had to study a lot for that because we don't see that in the Big Ten. We had to bunker down and really understand what we had to do that game. It was about experiencing live reps and running plays that will make you successful in conference.
Because of how different Wofford was, was playing them last year a good thing for the Badgers or indifferent for the Badgers?
Maragos:For me, I would rather play a team with a normal-type offense. Unless we played a bowl game against Georgia Tech and its triple option, the game wasn't going to benefit us in terms of the looks we were going to see against another opponent. It is what it is. As an athlete, it's going to stretch you to do the things you need to do. I don't think (playing Wofford) made us that much better or impacted us because we didn't use anything from that game the rest of the year.
You are a perfect 3-0. One would assume you are picking a big Wisconsin victory on Saturday correct?
Maragos:Obviously watching these guys, the offense needs to get in a rhythm against these lesser opponents to build some confidence, run plays, get the ball down the field and getting in sync. With the defense, it's about flying around and making plays and getting your calls right and shut it down. I think this is a really big game heading into conference play. It will really solidify a lot of things, especially if they play a clean game.
I am going with a Wisconsin win, thinking 48-7.