It’s been a scintillating last few weeks for the Wisconsin Badgers football team. After an emotional dismantling of then-No. 1 Ohio State, the Badgers picked up a scrappy win over Iowa in a tough road environment at Kinnick Stadium, despite a rash of injuries to key players. The entire program is riding on a high tide with increased confidence in its big-game performance and media attention, leading some sports journalists to proclaim the Wisconsin football program has made the proverbial leap from good to great.
A chance to heal
Rather than getting caught up in all of the hype, though, the Badgers are seeing their bye week as a chance to rest, heal and prepare for the final stretch of regular season games.
“You take a chance to breathe, which I think is really important,” head coach Bret Bielema said.
The bye week also comes at a crucial time for the Badgers to physically recover. During the Iowa game, two of Wisconsin’s most explosive offensive players went down with injuries: Tight end Lance Kendricks and explosive freshman running back James White. Receiver Nick Toon also missed the entire game with a thigh injury.
“We’ll turn our attention to mainly getting ourselves healthy,” Bielema said.
The good news is that Toon will be back as practice starts up again and the injuries to Kendricks and White were not as severe as they looked on the field. White’s injury looked especially severe, as his knee was caught under a defender and bent in a very awkward position. It appears Toon will be back for the Purdue game Nov. 6, and depending on how White’s sprained knee feels, he may play against Purdue as well.
“How James comes back may or may not have him involved in next week’s gameplan,” Bielema said. Offensive lineman Josh Oglesby appears to be out for the season, which hurts the Badgers’ stout offensive line a bit. Oglesby will have surgery within the next two weeks.
White’s dazzling agility and speed have been a brilliant complement to the power running of starter John Clay. However, the Badgers can be patient in bringing White back with the re-emergence of sophomore back Montee Ball. Ball had a promising season last year as a freshman with nearly 400 yards backing up John Clay. He has seen his carries decrease this year with White exploding onto the scene, but with White out late in the Iowa game, Ball stepped up with several key receptions on third-downs and ran in the game-winning touchdown.
There are obvious playmakers for UW, as Kendricks, Clay and defensive end J.J. Watt have all been spectacular. Watt, in particular, has been a force the past two weeks in key situations, putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Ricky Stanzi.
“J.J. has developed into something beyond what anybody could think of coming in,” Bielema said.
But for UW to beat OSU and Iowa back-to-back, less-heralded players needed to step up and perform well. One of those players for the Badgers has been fullback Bradie Ewing. Bielema was pleased with the fullback’s maturation and performance.
“He’s playing very mean,” Bielema said. “He’s very aggressive in what he’s doing, and he’s learned to block on the move a lot better.”
Quarterback Scott Tolzien’s play and leadership have also impressed Bielema. Despite throwing a costly interception in both games, he rebounded well and led the team on crucial drives in the fourth quarter.
“I always knew he was great,” Bielema said. “He’s always going to have great academics. He’s always going to say the right things. He’s always going to do the right things. But when things are hard or you have a bad play, how are you gonna respond?”
According to Bielema, Tolzien has responded perfectly.