A year after shaky quarterback play and indecisive decisions by the signal caller was one of the big downfalls for the Wisconsin offense, it appears that Scott Tolzien is a complete 180 from last year's problems.
Tolzien completed 15 of 20 passes (including two clean drops from his receivers) for 159 yards, a career-high two touchdown throws and, for the second straight game, no interceptions. Through three games, Tolzien has completed 47 of 68 (69.1 percent) passes and has spread the ball around to nine different receivers. Even better, his four touchdown throws have been to four different teammates, making Tolzien look like a three-year starter and not a quarterback who just started his third career game.
"I got a chuckle when I was walking out before the game," Bielema said. "A couple students started yelling: 'Tolzien for Heisman.' It's probably a little early on that one, but I know Scotty is engaged and he's got a great composure."
Tolzien's only flub was failing to catch a shotgun snap, counting for one of UW's six fumbles.
"Turnovers are huge, especially in our offense which is a ball-control offense," Tolzien said. "Turning the ball over is critical and we need to clean that up."
Freshman quarterback Curt Phillips became the first UW quarterback to lead the Badgers in rushing since Brooks Bollinger ran for 127 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown against Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2000. Phillips ran only four times, but he gained 92 yards on the ground, including a 37-yard scamper. He also completed his only pass attempt, hitting Lance Kendricks for 13 yards.
If anyone wants to know how Bielema felt about his team's six fumbles, watch the first five and the last five minutes of his post-game press conference. If you look close enough, you can see steam coming out of his ears.
Bielema began by saying the fumbles, including the three that UW lost were his responsibility and the issue would get fixed.
"Just to end all questions to begin with, I know there's an issue," he said. "We fumbled the ball. We cannot have that happen. As a head coach, I'll take responsibility and I'll make sure it gets corrected."
Bielema snapped after the first question that he wouldn't answer any more questions about fumbles and wasn't pleased when it was pointed out that he had yet to answer a single question about fumbles.
"I don't want it to be an issue," he said. "I understand it's out there. What do you want me to answer?"
In came out later that Bielema threatened his team at halftime that he was going suspend the Fifth Quarter celebration and put his offense through ball-security drills in front of a filing-out crowd. Unfortunately for him, that display would have been an NCAA violation.
"I announced it at halftime: 'Anybody have a fumble (or) exchange issue the second half, we're going to go out there and we'll suspend Fifth Quarter and make sure we've got ball security. Because of NCAA rules, I can't.' We're going to be repping it tomorrow."
"Absolutely," he said. "I couldn't be more serious."
After averaging 7.8 lost fumbles the previous 10 years, Wisconsin lost an uncharacteristically high 19 fumbles last season, making ball security a top priority during spring and fall camp. Any fumble was dealt with harshly, with extra drills and conditioning work after practices, which showed why UW's offense was so clean through two games.
UW entered the game with no fumbles in 130 offensive plays, including 77 rushes. UW lost two fumbles on its first five plays, one by John Clay and one by Zach Brown. It was a rough day for Clay, who was making his first start of his career, being benched after he fumbled for the third time in the third quarter. He finished with 70 yards on 12 attempts.
The fumblerooskies gave freshman Erik Smith his first extended playing time of his career and Smith responded, carrying the ball 10 times for 54 yards and his first career touchdown.
Still, it was hard to discuss anything other than the fumbles.
"You put the ball on the ground, you don't know if you are going to get back in or not," said Brown, who rushed for two two-yard touchdowns and had 63 yards on 12 carries. "You have a performance like that … I figured sooner or later I would be in some ball security drills."
It took awhile, but Lance Kendricks finally got involved in the offensive output. Held catch-less in the first two games, Kendricks caught a career-high six passes for 70 yards and his first-career touchdown in the second quarter, opening up the floodgates for UW.
"I was just going out there and playing, but the first catch really relaxed me," Kendricks said. "I feel a lot better though, especially since I got the (touchdown) monkey off my back."
Sophomore wide receiver Nick Toon also had six catches for 70 yards and now leads the team in catches (15) and receiving yards (191). Garrett Graham caught his first touchdown of the season, as well, as UW's offense is showing that it has no shortage of weapons.
The Terriers entered the day averaging 280.5 rushing yards per game, but they didn't have their leading rusher fullback and had no real passing threat. Combine those two things and it was a walk in the park for UW's defense.
After Cal Poly brought its seldom-seen triple-option offense into Madison and embarrassed the Badgers with 276 rushing yards, Wisconsin stayed primarily in 4-3 base defense and found success, limiting Wofford to only 63 rushing yards in the first half.
The Terriers finished with 214 rushing yards, but most of the damage well after the game was decided the reserves were in. UW's rush defense was so dominant that it took 29 minutes, one second of game time before Wofford's offense made into UW territory.
UW's starting linebacker trio were the top three tackles for the Badgers, as Culmer St. Jean, Mike Taylor and Jaevery McFadden combined for 32 tackles, with St. Jean leading the way with a career-high 15 stops.
Thrown in the fact that St. Jean has two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery and Taylor made a key fourth-down sack that gave UW the ball at Wofford's 18 yard line.
"I like the way our defense came ready to play and knew what they needed to do to (help) us get a win," Bielema said.
Solid. Simply solid.
Smith had a key interception in the end zone at the start of the fourth quarter and Fenelus had two tackles and a fumble recovery. Henry was out there, and healthy, but didn't record a tackle.
Wofford had 45 passing yards, the fewest by a UW opponent since Western Kentucky had 28 on Sept. 29, 2002, but it's hard to grade these guys against a team that refused to throw the ball.
There are few players Bielema loves more than Chris Borland and the attitude he brings to the Wisconsin football team. When Borland's name was brought up in post-game interviews, Bielema talked about seeing Borland at UW's summer camp last year; a camp that Borland promptly received and accepted a scholarship at.
After a camp session, Bielema asked if any kids wanted to stay after a punt. Borland, who punted all four years at Archbishop Alter High School, was there and boomed multiple 50-yard kicks down the middle of the field.
The next day, Bielema asked is any kids wanted to stay after a kick field goals. Here comes Borland, who made a handful of field goals, his longest from around 35 yards. A day later, Bielema looked for volunteers to stick around and catch passes from the quarterbacks. Borland promptly caught a 60-yard bomb one-handed.
Had the Badgers scored another touchdown, Bielema said he planned to have Borland kick the point-after and no, he wasn't joking about that either, especially since Borland has been practicing kicking twice a week for the last three weeks.
Borland made two standout plays on special teams that lead to 10 UW points. In the first quarter, he forced a fumble on a punt return that UW converted into a 36-yard Phil Welch field goal, only to out-do himself a quarter later, jumping over a two-man wedge to block a punt that true freshman defensive end David Gilbert recovered in the end zone to give the Badgers a 17-0 lead.
Props also go to Gilbert, who used the right sliding technique to score a touchdown instead of a safety for the Badgers.
David Gilreath had two kickoff returns for 38 yards, including a long of 22, but didn't get much blocking on his punt returns. This grade would have been an A, but Welch missing an extra point is not good news for the Badgers' kicking game, as the sophomore has been consistently pushing kicks to the right all season long.