Notes: A Return Test

No.4 Wisconsin has faced plenty of top return men during the 2010 season and have survived most of them. No.3 TCU's Jeremy Kerley could be the best the Badgers have seen all season in both the return game and the passing game, providing a tough duel test in the Rose Bowl.

MADISON – With the amount of play time it has received on YouTube and as the top play on Sportscenter's Top Ten, Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema has seen Jeremy Kerley's highlight-reel punt return against Colorado State last year many times.

Now, he and assistant coach Charlie Partridge have the challenging task of making sure No.4 Wisconsin doesn't become the senior's next highlight when the Badgers face No.3 TCU in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.

Kerley was named the league's special teams player of the year, and is currently tied for 14th nationally on kickoffs (28.0-yard average) and 17th nationally on punts (12.9-yard average).

"With great returners, they can almost see the field before it begins to happen," Bielema said. "They can feel coverage and break to a certain part. I think it's a gift that is just given to them."

That was shown last year against the Rams. Kerley's 69-yard punt return for a touchdown can best be described as something out of a video game, as the senior catches the punt, ducks and dodges through traffic and makes five people miss on his way to the end zone.

"He's certainly an impressive athlete," Partridge said, "and that play is just one of many examples of why he's regarded so highly."

Wisconsin's kickoff and punt return units have experienced the ebbs and flows during its championship season. In its final non-conference game against Arizona State, the Badgers allowed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 95-yard kickoff return. The following week in the conference opener, the Badgers allowed Keshawn Martin to return a punt 74 yards for a score that gave the Spartans the lead for good in UW's only 2010 loss.

UW book ended its season by allowing Northwestern to set a school record with 325 kickoff return yards. Granted the Badgers kicked off 11 times in their 70-23 victory, but did allow a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Venric Mark before halftime. The Badgers finished with a kickoff coverage net average of 40.2, ninth in the conference.

Not only is Kerley a threat in the return game, he's dangerous within the offense. With senior quarterback Andy Dalton, a four-year starter, fifth in the nation in passing efficiency with a 167.03 rating (2,638 yards, 66.2%, 26 TDs and six interceptions), Kerley has been the benefactor of his success, leading the team in touchdown catches (10) and total catches (50).

"He might be the best we've seen," Bielema said of Kerley's return ability. "They've got three or four guys at their (respective) positions that are about as good as there is – their left tackle, center, corner/safety and their return guy. It's all guys that have played at a high level."

Proud Onlooker

With the Badgers having off Saturday, it allowed Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren to finally have some free time in what has been a hectic week after being announced as the next head coach of Northern Illinois on Monday.

So he did what any future head coach would do, he kicked back, turned on ESPN and watched his team play the Humanitarian Bowl. It was time well spent.

Under interim coach Tom Matukewicz, who will stay on Doeren's staff as the linebackers coach, Northern Illinois got its school-record 11th win of the season by defeating Fresno State, 40-17.

"I watched it all," Doeren said. "I was super proud of the guys. I thought they had a heck of a season. They had a lot of strange things happen at the end of a good season. Just to see them play together and finish the way they did, I am proud of them."

Junior quarterback Chandler Harnish ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, and after the Huskies were stopped on their first drive, but scored on its next seven straight drives to go on a 40-3 run.

"It shows me that that there's great leadership there to be able to overcome all the different things that changed in their lives after a 10-win year," Doeren said. "You know there's good people in the locker room and it shows me the quarterback has a great voice on that football team. They were physical. They played to win. They were aggressive. They were fun to watch."

After winning the school's first bowl game since 2004, Matukewicz told the media the team better start next season in the Top 25. Doeren deferred the question but said there are plenty of pieces in place.

"There are several guys coming back with experience, which is one of the several things that intrigued me about the job," Doeren said. "There's obviously a lot others, but knowing you are walking into a place with players and facilities is attractive."

Injury and Practice Report

Other than the players recovering from season ending injuries, Bielema said everybody is back and healthy at practice.

"Anybody that wasn't involved with a test was out there," Bielema said. "We're at 100 percent full-strength with everybody else."

With players missing because of graduation, Bielema got a chance to get a good look at redshirt freshman Pat Muldoon, who has been limited over his two seasons because of ACL injuries. Still, Muldoon has been able to contribute on the defensive line, playing in all 12 games and registering seven tackles and one pass deflection.

"He's probably looked as good as he's had in the past two weeks," Bielema said. "The burst, getting healthy and playing full speed … is starting to show up."

The Badgers will practice Monday before taking Tuesday off. The team will practice Wednesday and Thursday before leaving off for Pasadena Saturday afternoon. The Badgers will also have a short scrimmage either today or the first half of Wednesday's practice.

Badger Nation Top Stories