MADISON – The madness is finally over.
After 10 straight practices in which Head Coach Bret Bielema and his staff put the Badgers in full pads, Wisconsin spent a beautiful Madison night in half pads. Even better for the team was that they were only on the field for 90 minutes and they responded, having one of their better practices of the fall.
"I wanted to push them a little bit mentally and physically and they responded great tonight," Bielema said. "The concern is anytime you back off, kids lax mentally. That was as crisp as we've been. I told them that they wanted to practice like that again was the reason they practice so well. My hats off to them."
Another reason that Bielema took it easier Friday night was the Badgers have a full scrimmage planned for tomorrow, equipped with Big Ten referees. The plan tomorrow is start off with first down series to teach the offense, "if you gain four or more yards on first down, you have a chance at moving the chains. If the defense stops then for three or less (yards), you have a chance (to punt)."
After that, the plan is to move the ball up and down the field, as Bielema hopes to get work in the red zone, goal line, starting series and sudden changes, making the situation as much like a game scenario as possible.
"I am assuming sudden changes will happen," Bielema said. "If they don't, I'll make it happen."
Wisconsin has toned down the live tackling this fall, only doing it twice this camp. After tomorrow, the Badgers will have one more live tackling session either Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, dependent on the health of the players.
The QB Nitty Gritty
With the scoreboard reading 51-49 Northern Illinois with less than a minute left, Wisconsin's offense was given the daunting task of advancing down the field against UW's first-team defense in hopes of earning the win.
Although the majority of the drive looked ugly, with three seconds left, Richard Kirtley ran past his coverage and caught the ball right on the back end line. He maintained possession throughout the play but while the offense signaled touchdown, the defense yelled for a review. Needless to say, replays were inconclusive.
Phillips ran the second series, this time with UW down 53-49 with one minutes, 52 seconds left. Unfortunately, Phillips did not rise to the occasion. He finished 3-for-7 passing, overthrowing one pass, underthrowing another, nearly saw freshman safety Josh Peprah pick off a pass and then redshirt freshman Marcus Cromartie picked off a tip pass, ending the drive.
Tolzien was put in the same scenario and performed marginally better, going 4-for-7, but relied on his receivers to make plays after the catch. One of the more impressive plays was an incompletion, when Chris Borland ran through the line and elevated to knock a ball down with his chest
On the final play of practice, Tolzien threw a deep pass to Maurice Moore for a 55-yard touchdown … but the coaches blew the play dead before the pass after Bradie Ewing was called for holding Borland right in front of the coaches.
With Phillips and Tolzien having gotten the majority of the repetitions over the last couple days, one would assume that the quarterback race is down to two. Not according to Bielema, who said senior quarterback Dustin Sherer is still very much involved.
"Guys further along on their playing tenure has got to show us certain amount of things, but (you've got to see what) other guys do with reps," Bielema said. "Scott and Curt have taken advantage of those reps. Nothing against Dustin, he's doing some good things, but we want to see where those guys can go.
"This is an important week for us. Opening week, we had everything in there, everybody was getting an equal amount. Next week we have to name a starter, if not sooner."
The coaching staff is expected to name an opening day starter on Wednesday, if not sooner.
A Linebacker Bonus
Wisconsin defensive coordinators have been drooling over UW's three scholarship linebackers – Chris Borland, A.J. Fenton and Conor O'Neill – that have come in and made a variety of statements. Borland has showed toughness, O'Neill has shown intelligence and Fenton has showed, with a little time, he may be the best of the bunch.
But Nick Hill is another story. A walk-on from Milwaukee Washington High, Hill saw reps with the first and second-team defense, showing good break to the football and solid coverage on any receiver coming out of the backfield.
"You've got the Milwaukee kid in Nick Hill just like DeAndre (Levy) was," Bielema said earlier in the week. "He's kind of like that demeanor too. He doesn't say boo. He just goes about his business. Don't tell that to DeAndre, but he's probably a better athlete than Dre was at that time."
Shelton Johnson was telegraphed an interception during 7-on-7 drills with Curt Phillips under center. Johnson was so wide open that he stood flat footed waiting for the ball to come. Honestly, that's the only excuse I can think of to why he didn't catch that pass, which he bobbled and fell harmlessly to the turf.
Gabe Carimi (knee), Jake Current (concussion) and Bill Nagy (ankle) are still out of commission for the Badgers offensive line and tight end Zach Davison was spotted in a walking boot and had a decent limp.
Redshirt freshman Kevin Rouse (concussion) returned to practice earlier this week, and looks healthier than he has in quite some time. Getting work with the first and second-team defense on the outside and performed admirably. Rouse has had shoulder problems, but appeared to finally be healthy.