Musings from Maragos

After two standout seasons in the Wisconsin secondary, Chris Maragos is collecting a NFL paycheck with the San Francisco 49ers. He also joins Badger Nation for a weekly insider look at Wisconsin football, talking this week about Michigan State and looking ahead to Minnesota.

MADISON - No matter how much time a player spends during the off season conditioning and preparing to be strong in the fourth quarter, being on the field for over 35 minutes, including over nine minutes in the final quarter, takes its toll.

Chris Maragos remembers it, and he can relate to what the Wisconsin defense went through in its first loss of the 2010 season last Saturday. Maragos talks about what happened to Wisconsin last Saturday and brings his insights to Badger Nation subscribers.

We talked the week before about what the defense needed to do to create turnovers and it was good foreshadowing because UW's defense got three. However, they only turned that into 10 points. As a defensive player, is that frustrating when the offense doesn't take those turnovers and turn it into touchdowns?

Maragos: As a defense, anytime you get a turnover is big because you are shifting field position and giving the offense, especially our offense at Wisconsin, an opportunity. UW's offense is so high powered that when they get rolling, they are hard to stop with all the weapons. If it doesn't turn to points, it is disappointing but at the same time, it's our job to stop their offense no matter what our offense is doing. When you look at that point of view, you want to cash in and get some momentum, but I think it's more for the coordinators because they can make different calls based on points, get more aggressive in blitzing, knowing that the offense is taking advantage.

Referring to the secondary and the linebacker, how tough is it for a team that is running the ball so well to switch to play-action pass? J.J. Watt had that big stop on fourth-and-one at the one and the next two times down, MSU did play-action pass at the goal line and scored a touchdown.

Maragos: I think it's difficult. When a team is down inside the five, as a defensive back, my focus is not give up the pass. If they are going to run it in and they get past the linebacker, it's probably not good anyway and they are probably going to end up scoring. For me, I always try to have a pass mentality. You want to be up there and want to stop the run, but you get so focused on stopping the run that you get caught in a play-action situation where they flip a tight end off the line or a running back out of the backfield.

The last touchdown on fourth-and-one that broke UW's back, Wisconsin was in a quarters coverage. What is supposed to happen when it's a quarters call like that, most of the time when the receiver is in a reduced split like that, he'll come down and crack the safety in the run gap and the cornerback will replace the safety in that run gap. Michigan State did an excellent job of designing that play. They acted like they were going to crack the safety, so the safety was getting ready to absorb the blow and the cornerback was getting ready to replace in the run fit. Then the receiver slips behind the safety and the quarterback throws over the top for the touchdown. It's really a difficult to defend and really well schemed by Michigan State.

It's funny you mention that play because I watched it a few times to see what went wrong. Niles Brinkley chucked at the line to try and knock B.J. Cunningham off his route. When Cunningham crossed, Brinkley stopped and appeared to look in the backfield for the run and Jay Valai seemed to be caught flat footed a little bit. Are you basically saying that UW did the right thing and MSU just beat them on that play?

Maragos: Yeah, I think so. A safety has to do a really good job reading the offensive line to get either a run or a pass play. Again, the cornerback has got to replace the safety in the run gap and follow the play. It's really difficult play, almost like a crack-and-go type play that the corner gets caught on. It was a tough play, but one that ultimately broke their back because of how it was designed to look.

You guys are well conditioned guys, but even long drives are going to knock the wind out of the defense a little bit. When does a drive become too long for a defense and when does a drive start to wear on you, referring to MSU's 15-play, eight minute drive that effectively ended the game?

Maragos: I think probably about play 10 is where it starts to get tough. I think where it really hurts for a defensive guy, for me personally being out there getting tired and worn out, is when you hold them on first and second down and they convert on third down. That kills you, makes you tired again and you have to start over. Probably after that second third down conversion is probably when, for me, is when you get most tired. Mentally when they convert on those plays, it makes it difficult.

What's do you think had a bigger impact on the game – the offense going 3-for-11 on third down or the defense allowing MSU to go 9-for-18 on third down?

Maragos: I think in that game, the offense not being able to convert on third down was difficult. Our offense is not built for big scores and quick strikes. It's built for methodically going down the field and taking time off the clock. When your offense doesn't convert on third downs or has a quick three and out, it throws them out of rhythm, the defense is out there longer and makes it more difficult on both units. When the offense isn't in a rhythm, it makes it hard to get both units going. Both things played in to it but I thought it was more challenging with the flow of the game when the offense couldn't stay on the field longer.

Bielema had an interesting response to a question about how daunting a task is it to recover from losing the opener in the conference play, saying basically the goals of this team weren't to win a conference title but to get better every day. You've been a part of that process. How high is winning the conference really on that goal list?

Maragos: I think as an athlete, you set out large goals at the beginning of the season, goals at the end of the year that you can obtain, like a Big Ten championship. Within that goal, you have to set smaller to act as building blocks to get to that larger goal. The thing that I love about Coach Bielema is that he really has that ‘1-0' mentality. He has that focus on taking care of the here and the now. Every team in the Big Ten wants to win a Big Ten championship, including Coach B, but to really understand the program and what's going on, it is to get better every day. If you can do that, naturally along with that is the Big Ten championship and the things at the end of the season that you want to obtain. What Coach Bielema was probably trying to say is getting better every day, all the time is going to get them to where they want to be at the end of the season.

The players in the program like to focus on themselves and one game at a time but as a former player, an alum of Madison and a native of Wisconsin, do you smile to yourself when you see your rival Minnesota struggling like they have in the past couple years? The UW fan base certainly enjoys it.

Maragos: Now that I am out of the rivalry, I love seeing Minnesota struggle more than anything because they are our big rival. As a player, I really didn't worry about that. I had to worry about what were trying to do, what we were trying to accomplish so we could beat them. Now that I am on the outside of things, I like to see them do poorly. I didn't look at them struggling more than any other program struggling, but it's a little more rewarding now that I am out of it.

Your two years in the rivalry, there's a sense of pride walking into the locker room every day and seeing Paul Bunyan's Axe there. What was it like with your background when you got your hands on the axe for the first time? Was it a describable feeling?

Maragos: It's one of those things you really can't describe because they have been playing that rivalry for so long and that axe has been around for so long that it's such a big deal. It doesn't matter what anybody's record is, because both sides are going to come to play. When you beat them, the feeling of that is unreal, especially for me. One of the greatest moments was getting it my senior year. My junior year, I didn't hold the axe. I didn't want to. I wanted to go into my senior year knowing that I needed to do everything I could to beat the Gophers that next year. That's how bad I was thinking about that next year. Beating them in their first Big Ten game in their new stadium, that was a great feeling. I had so much pride carrying that thing across the field and chopping down the goal posts, knowing that we had beat them in their place. That was a memory I will never forget, and it matters to those guys.

We both took a bump week and are 4-1 overall. What's your prediction this week?

Maragos: Badgers are going to win this one. It's a rivalry game, they are going to bounce back, they are going to be angry and they are going to come out really playing tough. It's at the Camp and it's going to be a good game for them. I say they are going to win by 18. Wisconsin 38-20.


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