Musings from Maragos - Illinois

Upsets in college and professional football make for great stories and drama for the underdogs, but they also hint that the favored team didn't take care of its own business. In his weekly piece, former Badgers safety Chris Maragos talks about how Wisconsin stayed the course and didn't fall victim in Minneapolis.

MADISON - On any given Saturday or Sunday, you're gonna to win or you're gonna lose.

It's a line uttered by Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday,' one of the best football movies out there, and it's a line that speaks well to sports. No matter how good one team and how bad another is, anything can happen, which makes Wisconsin's blowout victory over Minnesota that much more impressive.

Games in Minneapolis seldom are decided by halftime, but the Badgers' offense ran through the Gophers' defense and Wisconsin's defense shutout the Minnesota attack in the best road performance of the year. Knowing it was three games away from a Big Ten championship game appearance, Wisconsin took care of the first step on the road to Indianapolis.

Former Badgers safety Chris Maragos knows what can happen on any given Sunday. Double digit underdogs to Baltimore (6-2) after the Ravens swept Pittsburgh, Seattle (2-6) forced three turnovers to earn a 22-17 home upset.

In his weekly column, Maragos talks about the road victory, who has impressed him on UW's defense and preparing for Illinois.

BN: As a player, how big of deal is it knowing that if you take care of your business in the final two games of a season, you are going to get to the places you want to go?

Maragos: It feels really good and the pressure is off having to think about what other people are doing and different scenarios. All you have to do is focus on what you are doing now and take care of the game. Coach Bielema does a good job of keep player's minds focused on the task and not let them focus on the big prize at the end.

BN: Who was the most impressive player on the defense in the win over Minnesota from your coaching eye?

Maragos: You could pick a number of guys that did a lot of good things. The linebackers are playing at a pretty high level right now in terms of organizing the defense and making plays. Antonio Fenelus is playing well, had a big interception and is really helping to shut down the passing game. It's really a mix of guys playing within the scheme together that makes them a tough unit.

BN: Antonio had the momentum-changing interception, but he also made an important play of defending the trick play in the first quarter where Minnesota did a reverse receiver option. When you are preparing for a team that runs trick plays, what things does a DB look for to get a notion that something doesn't smell right and that this could be a trick play?

Maragos: I think the week leading up to a game, you want to watch a lot of film on your opponent to get a feel for what they run and to see if any of those plays show up. What do they do when they are down? What do they do inside their own 50? What do they do when they need a spark? Where does this come from? Based on the flow of the game, you can expect different things but what it really comes down to is trusting your keys, playing within the coverage you are playing and making sure you are the deepest of the deepest. If you trust your assignments, you are going to put yourself in a lot of good situations.

BN: A lot of people question how good this defense can be next year when Fenelus and Aaron Henry are gone, but how deep do you think the secondary could be next season with Devin Smith returning and with Marcus Cromartie, Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward getting a year of experience under their belts?

Maragos: Exactly. I think it's definitely going to be a strong point. The experience Dez is gaining this season as a sophomore is tremendous. I think he'll be better as he goes through the offseason and gets more comfortable with the plays. He'll continue to keep excelling. Shelton is a solid player and the Badgers are getting some corners in the game to build their depth. It really could be a good group and the right coaches are there to make sure the group stays on point.

BN: From a secondary standpoint and in your opinion, who has made the biggest jump from the nonconference season to now?

Maragos: I would have to say probably the guys that sticks out to me the most are the safeties. At safety, you have to know so much. You have to know the coverage adjustments and do things in the speed of the game like watching offenses and shifts and motions. I think those guys – Shelton and Dez – have come a long way for me just because I know what they are about. Dez is a guy that has impressed just from the mountain of knowledge of the game he's gained.

BN: Take me back to your senior season. How important was it for you guys to get that first true road win? It's easier to win at home, but to get that positive result on the field had to have been a big confidence boost, especially considering this team only had one home game left?

Maragos: It's big because when you play at home, you have a routine. You are familiar with the locker room, with how you are going to exit and with your surroundings. It's comfortable and you have your own crowd and they are rowdy. It's more hostile on the road and to pull it out in that environment is big for your confidence. It's big to prove to your teammates and yourself that you are battle tested and you can compete in tough places.

BN: What's the hardest thing you have to go through in preparing for an opponent you don't see very often, an opponent not in your division and off your schedule for a few seasons?

Maragos: It's different because you're going to see a different offense than what you are used to seeing and different personnel. Being comfortable with players' strengths and how the team utilizes those strengths, what the weaknesses are and how to exploit those weaknesses and going along those lines are the keys to playing any team. When you haven't seen a team and don't have that familiarity, it takes longer than normal and you really have to pay attention to that detail.

BN: What are your impressions of Illinois – a team that started 6-0 and is now 6-4?

Maragos: I think they are a team that had a lot of talent that at times isn't very disciplined. Being in games, they have good players, but you have seen them drop off later in games because of either their lack of discipline or other problems within the team. I think they are talented. Everyone in the Big Ten is talented, but talent can only take you so far.

BN: Where did the discipline come for Wisconsin between 2008 and 2009? Was it a change in leadership, philosophy, the way your team worked or something else that has made Wisconsin very disciplined and accountable over the last three years?

Maragos: I think it's the way we prepared in the offseason. I think leadership played a role with guys making sure other guys handled their business on a daily basis. When you have those things instilled in you, it carried over to on-the-field success. Whether it's in the classroom or in the weight room, not cutting corners leads to success. There are a lot of different things with guys buying into the coaches and the leaders on the team. There are a lot of things to go into it.

BN: If you are still on this Wisconsin football team, what would be your expectations heading into the last two weeks of the season, especially knowing where you sit in the conference?

Maragos: It's ingrained in me as a player, but to go in and take care of business, to take this game, perform well and move on to the next one with a win. Obviously as a player, it's hard to look at one game at a time. We have everything in our control and as long as we handle our business and not let ourselves get caught up in everything else, we'll be just fine.

BN: Illinois has a very good defensive line that generates a lot of pressure and two of its four losses have been by one score or less. Where is this matchup, besides the trenches, is the game going to be decided?

Maragos: I think the big key is limiting the mistakes. Wisconsin did that against Minnesota and took advantage of Minnesota's mistakes. Games are lost because of mistakes or teams not having enough discipline or savvy to win them. Wisconsin definitely has the right tools. The key to victory for this is to not shoot yourself in the foot, continue to handle the ups and downs a game brings and Illinois has proven that they struggle when things turn against them.

BN: What's your prediction for this game?

Maragos: I'm going to Wisconsin. I think they are going to win. I have confident in this group that they are back on the winning track and I'm going to say 42-21 Badgers.

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