Remember, remember, the 27th of September.
In 2008, that is. That’s when Wisconsin went into the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., and was up 19-0 at halftime over the Wolverines. After the break, UM quarterback Steven Threet engineered the second-biggest comeback in Michigan history, giving UM a 27-25 victory over UW.
That loss was the beginning of a derailment of the Badgers’ season, one where they finished 7-6 and were a few embarrassingly botched extra points away from losing to Cal Poly at home.
Senior captain Jay Valai remembers it all too well, the image of Threet and Rich Rodriguez after the victory burned into his mind as soon as the San Jose State game was over. UW head coach Bret Bielema hasn’t forgotten it either.
“I remember the long run [by Threet]; I remember that whole day very well. Reminded our guys of it on Sunday,” he said.
This weekend, Threet makes his return to Madison, not as a Wolverine, but a Sun Devil. Threet transferred to Arizona State (2-0) after that 2008 season, finding himself more comfortable in ASU’s spread no-huddle attack than in Michigan’s spread-option system.
This Sun Devil offense relies on running a lot of plays quickly, and scoring in a fast manner. In contrast, the Badgers try to run a lot of time off the clock and win the time of possession battle. In ASU’s 16 scoring drives, the Sun Devils averaged 2:07 of game time between getting the ball on offense and scoring. The Badgers have averaged 3:34 in their 11 scoring drives.
With lots of communication involved – both at the line of scrimmage and between Threet and the sidelines – UW (2-0) hopes to use its home-field advantage to disrupt that flow of information.
“Those guys fire off plays real quick. One of the biggest things we can do is, we want to ask our crowd and our students to get in the game as much as possible,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “Their offense is a lot of communication, so if our crowd can get loud and interrupt their communication that’d be great for us.”
On defense, the Badgers will finally have their ideal starting linebacker trio – senior captain Culmer St. Jean and sophomores Mike Taylor and Chris Borland ready to go against ASU. UW hasn’t had all three of them on the field for a game since last fall’s game against Iowa, where Taylor tore his ACL.
While Taylor was kept on a “pitch count” as far as play time against SJSU and it’s unclear how much Borland will get to play, the Badgers haven’t missed a beat with senior Blake Sorenson stepping in and starting, and have gotten big plays from Kevin Claxton and Kevin Rouse.
“Our linebacking corps is as deep as it’s ever been,” St. Jean said. “We have a lot of veterans at linebacker that are able to be trusted and able to play out on the field.”
Watt knows another benefit to the defense might be the amount of rest they get. In his eyes, the longer each UW drive takes, the better.
“Our offense grinds it on the field,12, 14-play drive[s],” Watt said. “[ASU's] offense [goes] three-and-out, their defense is going to be on the field for a long time. Being a defender, I know it’s extremely tiring.”
The key for the Badgers in those long drives will be to come away with points. Twice against SJSU, UW made it into the red zone, only to turn the ball over.
Both turnovers effectively came on fumbles. Freshman running back James White stretched the ball toward the end zone to try and get his first career touchdown, only to lose the ball out the back. Later, on a fourth-down attempt, quarterback Scott Tolzien fumbled and was forced to fall on the ball.
The struggles were unusual for a team that returned 10 of 11 offensive starters from a unit that led the Big Ten in red zone scoring percentage in 2009.
“It’s just us, [we need to] stop beating ourselves,” running back John Clay said. “That’s the only person that’s hurting us; we’re not getting outplayed by the other teams, it’s just us beating ourselves up.”
Clay, who has a team-leading 260 yards on the ground and four touchdowns, will face a stiff test against a solid ASU front seven. The Sun Devils have allowed just 123 rushing yards in their first two games.
“Their defensive line has a lot of people that rotate in,” left tackle Gabe Carimi said. “They all are pretty good, a penetrating defense, they really get upfield… that’s their advantage. This is the best defense we’ve faced so far.”
While the Sun Devils rolled to easy blowouts of Portland State and Northern Arizona, the Badgers haven’t looked completely dominant against UNLV and San Jose State. For Valai, he expects the Badgers to make a statement about what Wisconsin football is all about Saturday afternoon.
“The crowd’s going to be excited, yelling, our defense is going to be crunk, John Clay’s going to be totin’ that ball and Scottie’s going to be throwing to Lance (Kendricks),” Valai said. “You know, the usual.”