It was a fitting end.
In a game that easily could have been lost on special teams, it was Jay Valai’s blocked extra point that proved to be the deciding factor in Wisconsin’s 20-19 win over Arizona State this weekend.
Valai hurdled all of his generously-listed 5-foot-9 frame over the line to get a hand on the ball as the Sun Devils looked to tie the game with 4:09 left to play. It was a big play by a little man and saved the Badgers the pressure of needing to score on their last drive.
“[To] some people I’m small, but I’m tall in my own eyes,” Valai said. “I saw the play, in my mind, I’m thinking ‘I’ve got to make the play.’ A lot of guys don’t pay attention to every play, but one thing the coaches drill into our head, ‘This could be the play, this could be the play.’”
UW head coach Bret Bielema said the particular block play the Badgers ran on that point attempt was the first time all season UW tried it.
While Valai came through on the play that ultimately mattered, the Badgers were a mess on special teams in the first half. UW drove from its own 22-yard line to the ASU 27, where kicker Phillip Welch missed a 44-yard field goal. Although Wisconsin would survive Arizona State’s ensuing drive where Thomas Weber missed a 25-yard kick, the worst was yet to come.
Following a 49-yard field goal by Welch, ASU’s Omar Bolden returned the kickoff 97 yards to put the Sun Devils up 7-3. It was reminiscent of the sloppy play on kick coverage that plagued the Badgers over the past couple of years.
The Badgers went three-and-out on the following possession, forcing Brad Nortman to come in and punt. Jamal Miles easily appeared to return the punt for a touchdown, but Wisconsin was saved by an illegal block penalty.
“The part about kick coverage is, if one guy breaks down, everybody suffers,” Bielema said. “We’ll definitely take a look at what we’re doing.”
The coverage woes had been prevalent enough that Bielema, who had overseen special teams in his first four years, delegated duties to his assistant coaches. Despite sterling performances against UNLV and San Jose State, Arizona State hacked, slashed and simply outran Wisconsin en route to 267 combined punt and kick return yards.
“I don’t think it was just one element in particular, there’s 11 people on the field,” redshirt sophomore Shelton Johnson said.
It was Johnson who would turn around the special teams play for UW. After scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds left, a botched squib allowed ASU freshman Kyle Middlebrooks to run around his blockers and up the right sideline.
“It was supposed to be a hard line drive squib,” Bielema said. “[It's] obviously something we need to work on there.”
Although redshirt freshman Dezmen Southward was able to slow Middlebrooks, it appeared as though ASU would take the lead back into the locker room. Johnson would manage to run the Sun Devil down however, stopping him at the 1-yard line. Although the play would be reviewed, UW kept its 13-10 lead into the half.
“Honestly, I was just running, hoping that I could get him,” Johnson said. “The only time I knew I got him was when I got a hand on him.”
“I’m just watching, thinking, ‘Run Shelton, run Shelton, run,” Valai said.
Wisconsin cleaned up its act in the second half and was able to kill the last four minutes of the game relatively pressure-free thanks to Valai’s block.
So who had the bigger play?
“Probably Jay’s, I’d definitely have to say Jay’s. if he didn’t make that play, we’d probably still be playing right now,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Valai wasn’t about to be out-humbled though.
“Shelton’s just being nice – that’s a touchdown,” Valai countered. “That’s not one point, Shelton stopped six, seven points right there. Shelton Johnson made a great play, that’s the biggest play of the game.”
Sophomore linebacker Chris Borland re-injured his left shoulder during the game and was in sweats by the second half. It was the first game this season the Badgers were able to trot out their ideal starting trio of linebackers in Borland, Culmer St. Jean and Mike Taylor – and it didn’t last long.
The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year had offseason shoulder surgery and reinjured himself against UNLV in the season opener. After sitting out last week against San Jose State, he was cleared to go this week after practicing.
After the game, Bielema brought up the possibility of Borland taking a medical redshirt, but gave no indication it will necessarily be the course of action the team takes.
“I just know it’s available,” Bielema said. “It would basically be a decision that the doctors have to give us an insight on what to expect.”
Defensive end J.J. Watt went down twice with leg contusions, but returned both times. Watt could be seen on the sideline trying to stretch his right leg out after the second injury and only missed one play before returning to the field when Arizona State went to punt.
St. Jean sprained the same ankle that kept him out of most of fall camp, but was able to return to the game.