In a game where Scott Tolzien, John Clay, James White, Nick Toon and Lance Kendricks all finished with standout performances, there was arguably an even more impressive aspect of the Wisconsin Badgers’ 41-23 defeat of the Minnesota Gophers Saturday.
For UW, the strong statistical performance can be traced back to the offensive line.
“Everybody wants to turn their attention the the backs, but for us, our offensive line is the key to our success,” Bielema said. “I’ve said this even going back to fall camp, that those guys have established the leadership roles.”
What the final stats from Saturday’s battle for Paul Bunyan’s axe do show is that Scott Tolzien was efficient, completing 17-of-23 passes for 223 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions; the running game was stellar, as both Clay and White eclipsed 100 yards and combined for five touchdowns; and the offense as a whole was careful, turning the ball over zero times.
“I thought that was the storyline for the game, our inability to tackle, our inability to shut down the run, to slow the running game down in the second half and their ability to run it,” Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said.
“You just got to make the plays; you got to stop the run,” Brewster continued. “That’s the basic premise on which we live by defensively, and we certainly didn’t get the job done there in the third quarter. They just ran the ball that well against us, and that’s really disappointing.”
However, as Wisconsin moves forward into the toughest part of its schedule — Ohio State and Iowa are next — the depth of the offensive line may prove to be the Badgers’ biggest strength.
With guards Bill Nagy filling in at blocking tight end and Ryan Groy seeing time at fullback, Wisconsin has made a point of playing to its strengths. Saturday’s performance may have been the clearest indication of that, as Tolzien was never sacked, the Badgers outgained the Gophers 473-345 (250-96 on the ground) and only three yards were lost on negative plays all game.
As the left side of the offensive line remains as good as ever with left tackle Gabe Carimi and left guard John Moffitt, the right side will continue to face the most scrutiny. Yet, while center Peter Konz, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Ricky Wagner all have proven themselves capable, it will be the depth of the line as a whole that pays the biggest dividends for the Badgers as they prepare for the Buckeyes Saturday night.
Valai sits; healthy Toon, Gilreath have solid games
Safety Jay Valai was a surprise absence in Saturday’s game. The senior captain dressed, but did not take the field against Minnesota after sustaining knee and rib injuries last weekend against Michigan State. Shelton Johnson filled in for Valai and finished with three tackles.
“Shelton did a great job,” Valai said. “Shelton’s been solid this whole entire year. He’s a smart football player and he’s from Texas, so you know I got love for my brother. Shelton did a great job, and kept going forward, he’s a smart player, he made tackles and he played great coverage.”
With arguably the biggest game of Wisconsin’s season on tap, Valai said he will be ready to go next Saturday night as Ohio States comes to Madison in a showdown that could determine the Big Ten title.
“Oh yeah, I gotta be [ready],” Valai said. “We’re playing Ohio State here at night, I can’t miss that out for my senior year, so it’s going to be a fun game.”
Meanwhile, receivers Toon and David Gilreath had their best games against the Gophers after returning from injuries. Toon missed weeks two through four with a turf toe injury sustained in the season opener at UNLV, but returned last weekend at Michigan State. Yet the Badgers’ No. 1 receiver was disappointing against the Spartans, dropping two key passes and committing one penalty. Against Minnesota, however, Toon recovered by catching six passes for 52 yards.
Gilreath also saw limited time against MSU, catching one ball for 14 yards. Saturday, the senior was on the receiving end of two passes for 59 yards, including one 36-yarder. Gilreath also resumed his duties as kick returner.
“I don’t even remember the hit, so it never happened to me,” Gilreath said.
Late two-point conversion causes controversy
After White extended the score to 41-16 on a one-yard touchdown run with 6:39 left in the game, Wisconsin eschewed the extra point and attempted a two-point conversion. Tolzien’s pass fell incomplete, so the score remained the same, but Brewster was visibly upset after the game and expressed his frustration at the perceived attempt at running up the score to Bielema as the coaches met after the game.
Bielema said after the game that the decision was based on his situational card coaches have on the sideline that determines when two-point conversions should be attempted.
“I know Tim wasn’t happy with it,” Bielema said. “You know what, if I’m down by 25 and it’s in the third or fourth quarter, I would call a play knowing that they’re probably going to run a two-point conversion because that’s what the card says.”
As Bielema repeatedly referenced his card — which all coaches have — as the reason the decision was made, Moffitt stated it was simply smart football.
“That just make sense to me,” Moffitt said. “I don’t think it is trying to take a shot at them or anything like that. I think it is smart football because this game, anything can happen. You saw their offense, tossing it down the field and they could have scored fast. I don’t think coach Bielema or coach Chryst meant any disrespect by it. It is just smart football.”