Racine's John Clay remembers wanting to be a bruising running back like Ron Dayne, pounding the UCLAs and Stanfords with power and speed. Cottage Grove's Gabe Carimi wanted to be a physical force, much like Pewaukee's Chris McIntosh was in ‘99 and 2000. J.J. Watt, also from Pewaukee, remembers the unheralded Badgers defense holding Stanford to nine points 11 years ago, the fewest in a Rose Bowl since 1984.
Those three, along with many others, wanted to be a part of that rich Wisconsin legacy, but knew they couldn't do it individually, like the Badgers team two years ago tried to do and failed.
"When we came back from winter conditioning (that year), the seniors stepped up, told us what kind of group we had and what we could do if we stayed on track and focused," Clay said. "Being a running back and running the ball at this university, I wanted to emulate that. Other guys wanted to make an impact. This year, we knew we were loaded at every position and what kind of people we had.
"We wanted to make sure we had a clear head and a steady path. We all have our individual goals, but we don't make them bigger than the team."
So instead of a goal list that included Big Ten Championships, beating Ohio State and winning the two trophy games on its schedule, the seniors charted a list of daily, action goals, focusing on the things that occur in practice, the weight room and even the class room that would propel the Badgers to obtaining the goals.
"We focused more on being 100 percent committed to each other, accountable for things on and off the field and little things that are part of the big picture that people just don't see," senior cornerback Niles Brinkley said. "We did it that way because we wanted to stick to that way of thinking."
More importantly, the group took what it learned and ran with it. As a result, Wisconsin will be making its seventh Rose Bowl appearance when it takes on No.3 TCU Saturday in Pasadena, Calif.
Consider all the accolades No.4 Wisconsin (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) achieved during the 2010 season and it's surprising the Badgers don't orchestra their goal list a certain way every year.
- Wisconsin is the only team in the country to have three running backs who have gained at least 880 yards on the ground this season. James White (1,029), Clay (936) and Montee Ball (881) have combined for 2,846 yards on 465 carries (6.12 yards per carry). The Badgers have an outside chance to become the first team in FBS history to have three RBs run for at least 1,000 yards in the same season.
- The Badgers have committed just nine turnovers this season, tied with Iowa for the fewest in the country. UW leads the country in fewest penalties per game, averaging just 2.9 flags per game, and has been whistled for only one pass interference penalty all season.
- After forcing just seven turnovers in the first eight games of the season, Wisconsin has 16 takeaways in the last four games.
While the offensive firepower Wisconsin averaged (43.3 points per game) and scoring 83 points against Indiana were surprising talking points this season, players maintained, other than the freshman White, that nothing was real shocking during the 2010 season.
"We were very confident with the way our defense could play and we were confident with the way Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt were going to anchor our offensive line," Valai said. "We knew we had a great quarterback, a couple good running backs and a desire to be good. We knew that if we could keep a level head, we were confident back in August that we can do great things."
The Starting Point
The root for this season's run for the roses can be traced back until the middle parts of the ‘08 season, a disastrous campaign that saw the Badgers' slump to a 7-6 finish and a blowout loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
What made the season so surprising was the overwhelming amount of talent on that roster. Of the 16 seniors on that roster, eight donned an NFL jersey at one point, not to mention junior running back P.J. Hill leaving after the season to enter the NFL draft.
Moffitt, who started all 13 games at center that season, listed a number of occurrences that season where Wisconsin didn't prepare on a daily basis for a Saturday game (mainly the two games against Ohio State and Iowa) and one of the main reasons for the lack of success.
"I think we respected them," Moffitt said, "but I don't think we were ready enough as a team."
The common thread in both of those games was breakdowns – both in late-game situations and entire-game situations. The bigger picture struck a chord with Watt, who was sitting out that season due to NCAA transfer rules. Sitting at home watching Florida State run circles around his team, Watt realized Wisconsin needed a turnaround … and the returning players knew it, too.
"Guys came back and you could just feel it," Watt said. "The first day we got to winter conditioning, there was a sense that we needed to get this thing back on track. We wanted to hit the ground running and never looked back."
The first change was a stricter sense of accountability initiated by Head Coach Bret Bielema. Wisconsin spent more time on details, restricted spring practices and the strength program and implementing a stricter class attendance policy. If a player made a pre-snap penalty or turned the ball over, that player would log roll 100 yards after practice. If a player missed a class or lifting session, his teammates in his positional group would suffer.
"Off the field, you could see guys studying more and not missing class to playing with discipline on the football field," senior Jay Valai said. "We used to have a lot of arguments and a lot of fighting, but we don't have that anymore. People don't hate, they just showed each other love."
The second change was respecting the game. Moffitt turned back to '08 when he felt some players felt that their individual talent was more than enough to beat every team on their schedule. When that backfired, the approach needed to change.
"We learned how to respect the challenge of winning a game in the Big Ten," Moffitt said. "In previous years, we listened to everybody else on how we're going to be great, and maybe not understand how difficult and the preparation it takes to win. Last year, we started learning that and this year, it's well understood."
Led by 17 seniors, only four of whom are currently on an NFL roster, the team-first attitude led Wisconsin to a 10-win season and a victory over Miami in the same Champs Sports Bowl they were humbled in the year before. Suddenly, the pride was back.
Point of Growth
Every team has different checkpoints along the way that one can look back to and see where the growth occurred. Watt said it was a combination of guys coming together in the weight room during winter and summer conditioning sessions
But the real kick in the pants came when the Badgers walked off the field after suffering a 34-24 loss in the conference opener at East Lansing.
"We came into the locker room after the game and everybody kind of looked around," Watt said. "We knew we had two ways we could go. We could go up or we can let it beat us again and have an OK season. We all kind of had a silent vow that we would come out and attack the rest of the season."
From that point, Wisconsin ran rugged through the conference. Finishing on a seven-game win streak to win a share of the conference title, UW averaged 45.2 points per game in Big Ten play, a school-record, and scored on 55 of 86 possessions (64.0 percent) in league play, not including six possessions on which they ran out the clock to end the half or game.
When senior David Gilreath's returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against No.1 Ohio State, it electrified the Camp Randall atmosphere, and the Badgers' sideline for the rest of the season.
"Everybody's facial expression changed," Valai said. "We realized that we could play with anybody in the country. We beat No.1 Ohio State and people rush the field, that really woke us up. It gave us the confidence to go out there and prove we were the best game after game."
They'll get one more chance on Jan.1.
No.4/4/5 (AP, Coaches, BCS) Wisconsin (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) vs. No.3 TCU (12-0, 8-0 Mountain West)
Date/Time - Saturday, January 1 at 4:10 p.m. CT
Stadium –Rose Bowl Stadium (88,500/Natural Grass)
Television - ESPN (Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit, Erin Andrews)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) and ESPN Radio (Bill Rosinski, David Norrie and Joe Schad)
Series – Series tied 0-0-1
Last Meeting – The teams tied, 14-14, on Sept. 26, 1970 in Madison
Wisconsin is 16-6- 1 all-time against teams currently in the Mountain West Conference. The Badgers opened the season against a Mountain West opponent, defeating UNLV, 41-21, on Sept. 4 in Las Vegas.
The two teams have each scored exactly 520 points in their 12 games. They are tied for fourth in the country in scoring offense (43.3 points per game).
Wisconsin and TCU are two of just fi ve teams in the country to rank among the Associated Press Top 25 and the top 25 of the APR (Academic Progress Rate). The other three are Ohio State, Stanford, and Boise State.
This will be the fifth time in school history Wisconsin is involved in a game between two teams ranked in the top five in the Associated Press Poll.
The Badgers are 2-2 in the previous four games. The last game between two top-5 teams involving UW was the 1963 Rose Bowl when No. 1 USC defeated No. 2 Wisconsin, 42-37, a game in which the Badgers nearly rallied from a 42-14 fourth-quarter deficit.
While both teams score 43.3 points per game, don't expect this to be an offensive performance of epic proportions. It's actually hard to predict anything with this game, as these two teams do so many things that are completely different and unique from what they are used to.
The match-up to watch, in my opinion, will be TCU's defense going against Wisconsin's offense. The Horned Frogs' defensive numbers are great – best in the nation in scoring defense (11.4 ppg) and total defense (215.4 ppg) - but have been criticized because of the level of their competition.
A lot has been made about UW's running game against TCU, but it will be interesting to see how the Horned Frogs handle UW's overlooked passing game.
Wisconsin is eighth in the country and leads the Big Ten in third-down percentage, having converted 66-of-130 opportunities (50.8 percent). On third down this year, Tolzien is 42-of-60 for 550 yards with three TDs and an interception. That equals a pass efficiency of 160.2. In the last five games, Tolzien is 20-of-24 on third down for 251 yards. This game will provide TCU the opportunity to show how legit they are.
From being around Wisconsin all season, I truly believe that this is a special team, a team that plays for each other, works for each other and a team that sticks to what works for them.
TCU hasn't seen a run game quite like Wisconsin's, so if the Badgers stick to what got them to this point - limiting the turnovers and penalties - they should overcome the razzle dazzle of TCU's offense. How cool would it be if UW wins 31-27 after JJ Watt ends the game with a QB hurry on fourth down to force an incompletion? I think it would be the coolest thing to happen to the program since 2000.
Straight up: 9-3
Against the Spread: 10-2