For months, UW head coach Bret Bielema has tried to instill a message to his football team — finish each and every play.
At the conclusion of each half in Saturday’s game against Arizona State, the 11th-ranked Badgers proved they were listening as they escaped with a 20-19 victory.
During a kick return with just 10 seconds left in the first half, safety Shelton Johnson tracked down ASU wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks at the one yard line to save a touchdown. Middlebrooks was slowed by Dezmen Southward, the only other Badger with a chance to take him down. Later, senior safety Jay Valai blocked an extra point that allowed UW to hold onto a one point lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game
“I have harped on these kids that every play matters since last January and there is no better example of that today with the play of Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward right before the half,” Bielema said. “To never give up on that play and to get him down speaks volumes.”
After a nine play, 77-yard drive, Arizona State running back Cameron Marshall scored on a two-yard touchdown run to cut the score to 20-19 with 4:09 left in the fourth quarter, and Valai proved extra points are far from a sure thing as he blocked Thomas Weber’s PAT.
“Jay took advantage of the opportunity he got and to get his hand on the ball was awesome,” Bielema said. “That doesn’t just happen, that’s from 365 days of mental and physical conditioning that our guys pride themselves on.”
With 4:03 remaining in the fourth quarter following Valai’s block, the UW offense took the field with a chance to run out the clock and the Badgers did just that.
After a four yard run from Isaac Anderson, the Badgers were staring at a third and five but a personal foul was called on ASU defensive end James Brooks for a late hit on Lance Kendricks. As a result, UW picked up 15 yards and a momentum changing first down.
“I was blocking and somebody just hit me in the back,” Kendricks said. “I fell, looked at the ref and he threw the flag right away.”
Later in the drive, UW was presented with a third and two when Scott Tolzien found Kendricks—who had a game-high seven receptions for 131 yards—wide-open on a play-action pass for 17 yards. After a 10-yard, first down run two plays later from John Clay, ASU exhausted their timeouts and the Badgers salted away their third victory of the season.
“We knew if we could block that kick and stay up 20-19 that John Clay and the offense was going to run that clock all the way down,” junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. “That’s exactly what happened and that’s the kind of stuff that wins football games.”
The Badgers responded to a game-tying ASU field goal on the first possession of the second half with a 19-yard touchdown run from Clay late in the third quarter, but UW was fortunate to have a halftime lead.
Johnson’s desperation tackle on Middlebrooks at the one-yard line while time expired in the second quarter allowed UW to keep a slim 13-10 advantage at the half.
Down 10-6 in the second quarter and with just 15 seconds remaining in the half, the Badgers scored their first touchdown of the day as senior quarterback Scott Tolzien found Kendricks one-on-one in the corner of the end zone to give the Badgers a 13-10 lead.
“I saw Scott put a little velocity on it and he threw it behind so I set [the defender] up and tried to get him turned around and just caught the ball,” Kendricks said.
Kendricks’ 14-yard touchdown reception was the result of a well-executed two-minute drill that exhibited effective clock-management. UW managed to leave just 10 seconds on the clock after an 11-play 71-yard scoring drive.
“Before the end of the half we handled that as coaches and players as good as we could have handled that situation. It was well executed,” Bielema said. “That was obviously a huge turning point in the game.”
Phillip Welch opened the scoring in the contest with a 49-yard field goal at the end of the first quarter but ASU cornerback Omar Bolden scored the first touchdown of the game on a 97-yard kickoff return 12 seconds later.
UW’s third victory of the season was a win that came down to a handful of plays and the Badgers found a way to make them.
Bielema knows there is plenty of work to be done as conference play nears, but the mental toughness displayed by his team in Saturday’s win is a positive sign moving forward.
“We did enough good things to win this football game, but we have to correct and move past anything that can prevent us from winning in the future,” Bielema said. “I really just like the resolve of these guys and the way they handle their business.”