Wisconsin's special teams had been rightfully disparaged prior to the Badgers matchup with Penn State. The team had struggled mightily in kick coverage throughout the season, and a big return and a botched punt the previous week had led to a pair of field goals for the Fighting Illini.
The struggles turned to spoils in Happy Valley, however, as the Badgers special teams came up big time and again in a 30-23 victory.
"I feel good for our special teams," safety Jim Leonhard said. "Just because we have been getting kicked around. We haven't been performing real well, and then to come out and basically win that game on special teams, I feel really good. That put the confidence in that room right back up there."
Wisconsin's special teams recovered two fumbles, one setting up a late first half touchdown, but the signature play was Leonhard's late third quarter 65-yard punt return for touchdown that gave the Badgers a 23-9 lead.
(Chris Gardner/AP Photo)
"We've been close all year long, haven't quite busted one and we finally got it," Leonhard said. "We looked at the tape and there were a lot of key blocks. I just give credit to everyone out there with me. As soon as I broke that first tackle I just saw green grass and I knew that I had guys in front of me blocking for me still."
Leonhard is averaging 14.6 yards per punt return this season, a statistic that is all the more impressive when taken into account that he has called for a fair catch only twice.
"I tell you what he is fearless going in after a punt that is short," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "He is not afraid to go in and catch it at full speed. A lot of guys shy away from that and let it hit and then you don't know what is going to happen as far as the roll and that type of thing. He makes a lot of difference in yardage saved."
Leonhard has become accustomed to making big plays the past two seasons. Originally a walk-on from tiny Tony, Wis. (Flambeau High School), Leonhard's career 12.8 yards per punt return is currently the top mark in school history. Last season, Leonhard set a single-season school record with 434 punt return yards. He now has two punt returns for touchdown in his career, the other a 39-yard jaunt in a game at Michigan last season.
"I just think we need to play in front of a 100,000 people a couple more times because that is the two times that I did it," Leonhard joked.
Where Leonhard grabbed headlines last season, though, was with his play in the Badgers secondary, where he snagged a nation-leading and Big Ten record-tying 11 interceptions. This season, Leonhard is not on pace to match that exorbitant tally, but he is tied for the Big Ten lead with three picks through six contests this season. His 14 career interceptions are tied with Scott Nelson for fourth on Wisconsin's career list.
"Jim has been playing well," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "He is a leader back there and I know that we are trying to put him in a position where he can make more plays. He is going to have chances to play the ball more."
Leonhard has moved to free safety this season after starting all 14 games last year at strong safety. The change is subtle in the Badgers defense, but it does allow for a little more flexibility in how Leonhard can be used in coverage.
"It is a lot just formation, knowing what they are going to do, and reacting and putting a break on it," said Leonhard, regarding the interceptions. "You can only put so much scheme into it. You have got to make the play when it comes."
This season, Leonhard has at times lined up against slot receivers when teams move to a three- or four-receiver formation. Most often, however, Leonhard covers the deep middle of the field, where he has more freedom to track down opponents' passes or to hone in on ball carriers. Leonhard, after all, is also quietly tied for second on the team with 41 tackles and leads the team with 27 solo tackles.
"He has made more tackles than I thought he had," Lee said.
It is the tide-turning interceptions and returns, however, that make Leonhard, the team's MVP last season, so valuable.
"I think you take a punt return to the house that is pretty exciting—that gets you going pretty good," Leonhard said. "But the same thing with an interception. It is all about the timing. We really needed that punt return so it was a huge play. If you really need an interception to close a game out that is just as big."
Making plays will be vital Saturday, when defending national champion Ohio State brings its 19-game winning streak to Camp Randall Stadium.
"It is going to be unreal," Leonhard said. "It is on us to come out fast and keep that crowd into the game."