Sitting down for a Badger Nation interview in July, quarterback Scott Tolzien told me that while 2009 was a special season, he knew he could have played better, especially against the two ranked Big Ten teams on his schedule. A year of seasoning has obviously been beneficial to the senior signal caller, as his bounce-back performance was one for the ages.
Tolzien will never wow people with his passing yards (205), but is a surgeon when it comes to his accuracy, finishing 20 of 26 passing. His fourth quarter interception, however, made him look like a freshman. With the Badgers trailing 27-24, Tolzien did a play-action roll out and had Bradie Ewing open in the flat. Instead, Tolzien got greedy, flinging a pass on the move toward senior Isaac Anderson in traffic. The result was a rolling interception by Brett Greenwood on the Wisconsin 26.
Just like the week before, the defense picked up Tolzien, holding Iowa to a field goal and giving the senior another chance. He didn't let it slip. His pass to Montee Ball on fourth-and-four was clutch and placed in the perfect spot and he never lost his cool on that drive.
"That's why you have all those reps in practice and watch film in the offseason, to learn from those situations," Tolzien said. "It's big."
Tolzien had a number of outstanding passes. His perfect touch pass to Jacob Pederson over two linebackers was gorgeous, his selling of the play-action run left Bradie Ewing wide open for a Wisconsin touchdown and his distribution kept the defense guessing, as 10 different receivers caught passes.
Awesome effort by Tolzien in going 2-for-2 in his personal redemption tour, as the Badgers were 6-for-12 on third down and 3-for-3 on fourth down.
Montee Ball has been waiting for his number to be called … for anything. After finishing second on the team in rushing last season, Ball was victim to the emergence of James White, as the sophomore saw his carries diminish rapidly. So when White went down with a knee injury in the second quarter, Ball became the man once again and didn't fumble the chance.
Ball led the team with five catches and none were bigger than his fourth down grab on the final drive and taking a Tolzien shovel pass 14 yards on third-and-12, a play that set up the Ewing touchdown. Ball was a warrior on the final two offensive plays for Wisconsin, two physical, gritty eight-yard runs that were executed with his fresh legs turning and the Hawkeyes unable to bring him down. He finished with 59 total yards.
"Coach Settle told me ‘Good job keeping your head up,'" Ball said. "Like they said, you never know when your chance is going to come, so you have to keep your head up. I am not a greedy person. He's (James White) has performed many (more) times than I have. He still deserves it."
If wasn't for Clay, UW wouldn't have been in a situation to win. Clay was upset that he couldn't get the job done against the Hawkeyes last season, but was proud of his 24 carries for 91 yards and two second-half scores. Clay pounded both in from two-yards out, the first one coming on fourth-and-one to give UW a 17-13 and the second to give UW a 24-20 edge.
"It's a great feeling, being able to step up," Clay said. "I wasn't able to last year. Giving another chance to do it against those two great teams really boosts us as a team."
David Gilreath was effective on two end arounds for 14 yards and White struggled before leaving with an injury, getting only 10 yards on six carries.
Wisconsin has become use to playing without junior Nick Toon, who missed his fourth game of the year and his first after suffering a quad injury late against the Buckeyes. But with the Badgers without senior Lance Kendricks, who was hurt in the first quarter on a kickoff return, Wisconsin needed players to step up. UW got just that with 10 receivers making contributions.
Ball led the team with five catches, but Isaac Anderson led the team with 42 receiving yards, including a key 30-yard gain that set up a Clay touchdown. Anderson caught the pass in midfield, made a cut to the outside to freeze the defender and raced all the way down to the 2 for a 30-yard gain. Anderson still has his drops and his mistakes, but that was a big play.
Wisconsin had eight catches over 10 yards and a couple that went for nine. That showed good route running and yards after the catch by the group.
With the talent in Iowa's offensive line and the struggles of Wisconsin's defensive line to provide consistent pressure, there was a feeling that it was going to be a long day. The Badgers' front four was unable to get to Iowa Quarterback Ricky Stanzi for the first 59 minutes, 30 seconds, as no sacks or quarterback hurries allowed Stanzi time to throw for over 250 yards and three scores.
When UW got the 31-30 lead with 66 seconds left, it was a renewal for the group. J.J. Watt finally broke the scoreless streak for the line when Stanzi held on to the ball too long, tripping up the QB for an 11-yard loss that forced the Hawks to burn their first timeout.
"While he may not be getting pressure all game, we got pressure when it counted most right at the end," Watt said. "Obviously it paid off for us."
With Jordan Kohout out and Beau Allen missing time during the game with a undisclosed injury, the Badgers were thin in the middle, a big reason Adam Robinson was able to rush for 114 yards, including a burst of 30 yards through the left side, and a touchdown. That run was in Ethan Hemer's direction, but the redshirt freshman rebounded in his first start to register six tackles, most of any UW lineman.
Watt finished with five tackles, two for loss, tackled the punter on the botched snap and his second blocked kick of the year. The next time he takes a play off, the Gophers will play for a national championship.
A group that continues to battle, the linebackers bent on Saturday, but they never broke. Blake Sorensen is on the best run of his career, leading the team in tackles (9) for the second straight game.
Culmer St. Jean played OK in the middle, finishing with six tackles, but let Marvin McNutt run right by him without contact on his fourth-quarter touchdown. Kevin Claxton continues to show his inexperience after converting from the safety position, but he goes 100 percent on every play and notched five tackles. The coaching staff made a smart move by transitioning him to the position and he continues to take steps in the right direction.
How gutsy is Mike Taylor? Dealing with injuries most of his three-year career, including seeing last season end with a torn ACL against Iowa, Taylor played through a sprained left ankle and a strained lateral collateral ligament in his left knee suffered against Ohio State to make the final play of the game, tackling Adam Robinson in bounds with the Hawkeyes out of timeouts.
The Hawkeyes converted 11-of-16 on third downs, a number that was too high and something needs to be fixed in the Badgers five remaining games.
Speaking of bend but don't break, the cornerback duo of senior Niles Brinkley and junior Antonio Fenelus certainly made for some anxious moments. But as they say on the golf course, there are no pictures on scorecards.
Iowa's receiving tandem of Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and McNutt are the best the Badgers will have faced in the regular season. It showed at times. Both Brinkley and Fenelus gave the receivers too much space at times, allowing for easy completions in the flat. On Johnson-Koulianos' touchdown grab, it was hard to see if Brinkley either slipped on the wet turf or was confused, but he was nowhere near the receiver when he made the touchdown catch.
Still, both made some great plays down the stretch and had some great defense on some deep routes, forcing the receivers to the sidelines instead of the middle of the field. Brinkley finished with 8 tackles and Fenelus 7.
"They played great football," senior safety Jay Valai said. "Tight coverage. Niles had a great game, had a great break-up in the end and once again, you make a mistake, but you bounce back and make a play. That's all that matters."
Valai, the one-time Iowa commit, made five tackles and a great pass breakup/hit on tight end Brad Herman. Herman went airborne trying to snag a 25-yard completion, but Valai came in aggressively and popped the ball out with his shoulder.
"We made a lot of good plays on the field today, but we weren't perfect," Valai said. "In the secondary, you make a mistake, you've got to bounce back and keep playing, keep fighting."
Not only was Brad Nortman solid on his punting (48-yard average, long of 54), his 17-yard scramble might be the Wisconsin game-changing play of the year. Iowa foolishly rushed only two players on Nortman's previous punt attempt, choosing to have max protect, and that opened up the entire middle of the field for the fake punt, known better as ‘chains.' There wasn't question if Nortman would get the first down, but how far could he go, which he answered after rolling to the ground after a 17-yard gain.
"Coach drew it up and it just worked perfectly. He told me to slide in the open field and not get hit," Nortman said. "Naturally, I wanted to score. I slid and that's what came. Whatever they need me to do, I'll do. "I started out my mold so that they could buy that I was punting. I just put my head down and ran behind Ryan Groy."
Not only did Wisconsin outperform Iowa's special teams, it took advantage of every mistake. After an offsides penalty on a kickoff forced a rekick, David Gilreath turn the mistake into a 37-yard penalty, improving his return and nearly breaking it before being tripped up by the kicker at the UW 49.
Phil Welch booted three of his six field goal attempts into the end zone for touchbacks (69.3-yard average) and the coverage team biggest allowed return was 31 yards. Welch's 33-yard kick on the first drive was big on a day when Iowa's field goal unit blew the game. Welch's 67-yard try at the end of the half … well, was entertaining.