Not Buying In

A year after nobody expected much out of Wisconsin, everybody is expecting big things from the Badgers in 2010. But with each representative of Wisconsin at Big Ten Media Days, the group knows they have work to do, and it starts from within.

CHICAGO - As they sat at their respective roundtables, members of the Wisconsin Badgers felt that their perception had changed, just by the nature of questions being asked.

A year ago at Big Ten Media Days, seniors Garrett Graham, Jae McFadden and O'Brien Schofield were asked about what went wrong, how can it be fixed and about low expectations.

The questions that running back John Clay, quarterback Scott Tolzien and safety Jay Valai fielded were quite the opposite, talking about 09's success and high expectations, which the Big Ten media placed on Wisconsin by picking them third.

Even though the questions and the personnel have changed, the answers are exactly the same: nothing has been proven yet.

"We haven't had one game, much less one practice, so there's so much work to be done," Tolzien said. "As far as I am concerned, everyone is on an even slate right now and last season should have no implications on this season. It's a whole different ball game.

Using that analogy, the Badgers have a lot of work to be done if it wants to make their first BCS game since the 2000 Rose Bowl.

For one thing, the three Wisconsin upperclassmen that represented the Badgers at the Hyatt Regency Hotel were the figureheads for three of the areas that need signs of improvement this season.

Tolzien was a welcomed breath of relief under center after the up-and-down season Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer turned in during 2008. Waiting for three years for his chance, Tolzien was lauded for his calm, humble nature and his confidence in the pocket, attributes that were reflected in him leading the conference with a 143.0 pass efficiency.

But Tolzien didn't celebrate this offseason as much as he watched film of the Ohio State and Iowa games, two contests that could have gone the other way if ball security weren't an issue. In an 18-point loss at Ohio State, Tolzien can recall both vividly the two mistakes he made that were returned for Buckeyes touchdowns.

One was an overthrew that landed in the waiting arms of his safety Kurt Coleman, who tipped toed 89 yards to give the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead. The other was failure to see free safety Jermale Hines, who deflected and intercepted Tolzien's pass and turned in into a 21-10 lead.

Against Iowa, Tolzien simply calls it three bonehead decisions that led to the two picks by Amari Spievey and the one by A.J. Edds, forcing passes into coverage.

"It's been huge motivation because I put the brunt of that on my shoulders," Tolzien said. "Turning the ball over is not how we win games at Wisconsin. It's ball control and discipline and mistake-free football. In the end, I am kind of glad it happened because I can grow from that experience and not let it happen again."

Leading the Big Ten and finishing eighth in the country with 1,517 rushing yards, Clay averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 18 touchdowns, becoming just the third Wisconsin player and just the sixth sophomore to be named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

But Clay still has memories of contests when he wasn't fitting of that label. There was the Wofford game when he fumbled three times (skipping the post-game press conference in the process) and the game against Iowa, where he was unable to shake off an ankle injury and was held to only 75 yards. The real stinger for Clay was a fumble on third-and-1 in the closing minutes, a play that led to UW's 33-31 loss at Northwestern.

"(That fumble) has carried on to this season because I felt like I lost that game for my team," Clay said. "To be able to have a couple extra games after that to prove to myself and my team that I can carry the ball and run it without fumbling was key for me."

Losing 15 pounds because of the H1N1 epidemic that swept through the UW locker room in the second week of the season, Valai battled all season long to be consistent, much like the rest of his unit. After giving up 396 passing yards in a win over Michigan State, the Badgers limited their next four opponents to an average of 164 passing yards, a run punctuated by holding Purdue to season lows of 81 passing yards and 141 total yards.

UW followed that up by allowing 300-plus passing yards in two out of the three following weeks, only to limit the country's top pass offense to its lowest air total of the season.

"It wasn't good enough," Valai admitted about the secondary play. "I know that much. We had some good games, some bad, but we want to be consistent. We want to be the players of the defense. This is my year. I am a senior, and nothing is going to hold me back."

While they represent some of the areas needed to be improved, the trio also represents the hard work put in and learning lessons learned from their setbacks. Tolzien learned to have a short memory, and has become a role model for his teammates in shaking off a bad day or practice. Clay's fumbles showed dedication to the finer details, as the running back didn't fumble the rest of the season while Valai was adamant that youth was no longer an acceptable excuse and to take pride in the job.

That was the message being preached not by Tolzien, Clay and Valai, but from the other eight seniors who stayed behind to put more hours into the weight room.

"If you look at our established seniors, there could be 10 of us here speaking," Tolzien said. "I think this group represents the University and our families first. We're trying to be leaders, do the right things and push guys in the right direction."

With the three players Bielema brought, the ship is starting to move in the right direction.

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