Although he'll have to wait another year to be celebrated on Senior Day, fourth-year junior quarterback Dustin Sherer was in the same recruiting class with many of the 16 seniors honored on Saturday, including the three starters on the offensive line.
Although he had only 54 offensive plays to work with, Sherer made the most of his offense's limited opportunities.
Despite possessing the ball for only 20 minutes, one second (including just 2:46 of the third quarter), Sherer made sure the offense clicked, as the Badgers averaged 7.9 yards per play.
"We knew that we had to make the most of every position we got because we weren't going to have much," Sherer said. "We had to take advantage of it."
That's exactly what Sherer did; going 7-for-7 for 126 yards and a touchdown in the first half, finishing 13-of-22 for 245 yards and led quick scoring drives of 73, 80 and 89 yards, lasting 28 seconds, 1:17 and 2:18, respectively.
"That was a huge step for me in my confidence and hopefully that is something I can carry forward," Sherer said.
If there was any doubt that Sherer could carry the Badgers offense solely on his shoulders, he gave the answer with four minutes left in the game and UW down 29-21.
Starting on his own 11, Sherer started with an eight-yard completion to Isaac Anderson and, after an incompletion, a two-yard run by Hill to pick up the first down. On first down, Sherer tucked the ball and ran into a wide-open field for a 22 yard gain before stepping out of bounce at the 43.
On the next two plays, Sherer connected with Anderson again for 18 yards and Mickey Turner for nine yards. One play later, John Clay rushed for 27 yards to get the Badgers inside the three, where Hill cashed in the drive one-play later.
"That was huge," Sherer said. "We were just making plays. Getting over the hump is a huge deal for us, and getting a little momentum helps this team a lot."
Not only did that drive determine UW's success, but so did Sherer's performance. Luckily, it was his best of the year.
An angry running back is a motivated running back. After the last two weeks, John Clay has gotten all the motivation he has needed after making a critical mistake earlier in the ball game.
After a first-half fumble caused Minnesota to recover deep in UW territory and turn that into seven points, Clay made up for it by scoring the game-winning touchdown in a 35-32 slugfest. One week later, Clay's fumble gave Cal Poly the momentum early and the Mustangs didn't relinquish it until Clay found the end zone in overtime.
"I needed to make up for that fumble," he said. "That was irritating me and it got me mad that I turned the ball over. I could have cost us the game doing that so ever opportunity that I got, I made positive on."
Clay rushed 11 times for 107 yards (9.7 average) and two scores against an undersized defense that had no answer for the freshman or P.J. Hill, who ran for 59 yards and two scores, including the game-tying two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter.
"We were determined to score," Clay said of the offense when they were down 29-21. "We weren't settling for anything but a touchdown."
On that game-tying drive, Clay's 27-yard run around the right end was highlighted by a fierce stiff arm as a Cal Poly defender tried to ride him out of bounce. Hill was a force up the middle until a shoulder stinger limited him for the rest of the fourth quarter and the overtime period, but didn't stop him for fighting three yards for the conversion.
Wide Receivers/Tight End
The growth from the wide receivers this season has been remarkable. From the Michigan game where dropped passes were abundant to this game where receivers are making plays, the playmakers at this position are going to provided dividends for the Badgers over the next couple of seasons.
Freshman Nick Toon caught his first career touchdown pass as an important time. With the Badgers trailing 20-7 and under a minute to go in the half, Toon, running a go route, was involved in a collision when the pass, himself and two defenders arrived in the end zone at the same time.
Cal Poly's defensive back got to the ball and deflected up into the air, where a fortunate Toon was waiting for the lazy ball.
"It felt like it was in slow motion, but you've just got to keep your concentration and make the catch," said Toon. "It feels really good to get the first one and hopefully there are many more to come."
Sophomore David Gilreath recorded the first 100-yard receiving game of his career, registering four catches for 125 yards, and his 49-yard reception in the third quarter tied for UW's longest pass completion this season.
Isaac Anderson continued his strong second half with four catches for 55 yards. For once, the Badgers didn't rely on the tight ends (Graham and Turner each had one catch for nine yards), which shows how UW has matured as an offense.
The Badgers' 4-3 defense looked lost and confused when trying to solve the Mustang Wing T offense. The Mustangs ran 75 offensive plays, 59 of which were runs, and continued to run the same look until the Badgers stopped it. UW rarely did.
The Mustangs rushed for 276 yards in their rushing attempts, which made converting on high-pressure down simple. Cal Poly converted 11 of 19 third-down chances and both of their fourth-down chances, each of which led to scores.
Despite holding the ball for 39 minutes, 59 seconds and torching UW for scoring drives of 60, 71, 58, and 76 yards, Wisconsin's front four, three of whom are seniors, registered the stop of the game.
With UW trailing 29-21, defensive tackle Mike Newkirk (eight tackles) stopped a running attempt for no gain on first down. On second down, senior end Matt Shaughnessy (two tackles) did not lose quarterback Jonathan Dally when he kept the ball on the option, stopping Dally after only a one-yard gain.
On third down, pressure from tackle Jason Chapman (five tackles) force Dally to try and get the ball to No.1 wide receiver Ramses Barden despite double coverage, forcing Cal Poly into one of only two three-and-outs all game.
"We had to stop them, get them off the field so the offense could come out and score a touchdown," said Shaughnessy. "So we needed to step up."
The Badger defense did step up and the offense delivered.
Wisconsin senior linebackers Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy are going to be sorely missed. Both Casillas and Levy finished with six tackles and Culmer St. Jean was rotated in at middle linebacker with Jae McFadden.
The move paid off, as St. Jean racked up nine tackles, second best on the team.
Senior Allen Langford talked all week about looking forward to the challenge of guarding Ramses Burden and for the most part, Langford delivered. He only got in trouble twice, which unfortunately went for a 31-yard gain and a 25-touchdown catch in overtime. Other than those two plays, Barden's numbers were rather pedestrian (four catches, 27 yards).
"Allen Langford is one of the most strong-minded and competitive players I've ever been around," said Bielema.
On the other end of the field, Niles Brinkley played solid, registering two key pass breakups and two tackles.
With starter Jay Valai out with a leg injury, Aubrey Pleasant filled in nicely at a position he had relinquished earlier because of poor play. Pleasant finished with a team-high 12 tackles, many of which came as the last line of defense.
Wisconsin's offense struggled to move the ball early and that cause punter Bradley Nortman to be put in some adverse situations with the wind in his face. With the wind in his face and his heels on the end line in the second quarter, Nortman delivered a line drive 35-yard punt right to return man Tredale Tolver, who had little trouble returning it 40 yards for a touchdown.
With Cal Poly lining up for a field goal in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-six, O'Brien Schofield apparently was drawn offsides when the center jerked the football, but was called for encroachment and put Cal Poly in a fourth-and-one situation. Cal Poly decided not to kick the field goal and the Mustangs easily got the yardage on a quarterback sneak.
Wisconsin's two-point conversion play was easy pickens for a team that had run effectively through the middle all game and Phil Welch, needless to say, didn't miss an extra point attempt.