With age comes … Rose Bowls?
Maybe that’s not exactly what all the wise men and women responsible for coining all those old-people phrases had in mind. But for the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers, nothing could be truer.
On head coach Bret Bielema’s roster – one that has just tied for the Big Ten title and, barring any BCS tomfoolery, earned UW its sixth Rose Bowl berth – there are 13 seniors. Four are true fourth-year players, while the remaining nine are redshirt seniors. Of these 13, nine were regular starters this year. Of the remaining four, two still played crucial roles – offensive lineman Bill Nagy and receiver Isaac Anderson.
So with everything Wisconsin has to be thankful for this season – stunning victories over Ohio State and Iowa, a dominant rushing attack and a playmaking defense, to name a few – this senior class just might be the most significant.
Left tackle Gabe Carimi has started 48 games at UW, 32 consecutively, and is an Outland Trophy finalist, given to the nation’s top interior lineman. Monday night, he was also announced as the Big Ten’s top offensive lineman. Left guard John Moffitt was also a consensus All-Big Ten first-team selection, and started every game this season. Tight end Lance Kendricks – again, a consensus All-Big Ten first team selection – is the Badgers’ leading receiver with 39 receptions, 627 yards and five touchdowns, an invaluable blocker and a finalist for the John Mackey award, given to the nation’s top tight end. All three have majorly contributed to a powerhouse offense that features three players (running backs John Clay, Montee Ball and James White) with at least 800 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
Middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean is third on the team with 59 tackles and is in charge of getting the Badgers’ defense (third in the Big Ten) set on every play. Linebacker Blake Sorensen is one of those four true seniors, and he led the team with 60 tackles after filling in for the injured Chris Borland – the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Cornerback Niles Brinkley and safety Jay Valai transformed Wisconsin’s secondary from the team’s most maligned unit to one of its strengths – Brinkley was second on the team with nine pass deflections and Valai recorded 39 tackles, three pass breakups and four deflections, a forced fumble and a blocked kick that came on extra point attempt against Arizona State.
So far, that’s seven of the Badgers nine starting seniors. Yet, what about the starting quarterback and the kickoff returner who keyed the Badgers’ upset of the Buckeyes? Scott Tolzien, the quarterback, is the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after completing 15 of 19 passes for 230 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. For the year, Tolzien has completed 74.3 percent of his passes for 2,300 yards, 16 touchdowns and only six interceptions. His 169.80 quarterback efficiency rating is the nation’s fourth-best. David Gilreath, meanwhile, is the team’s fourth-leading receiver with 21 receptions for 347 yards and one touchdown. However, his biggest contributions have come as the Badgers’ deep threat – 16.5 yards per reception, tops on the team – and as a returner. Gilreath is the Big Ten’s all-time leading kick returner, which he became in the Ohio State game, the one where he began the Badgers’ 31-18 upset of the then-No. 1 Buckeyes with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
And what of those four seniors who weren’t regular starters? For Nagy, he still started nine of Wisconsin’s 12 games – all along the offensive line, and even at blocking tight end. The 6-3, 318 lb. lineman epitomizes versatility, and while his personality might be modest, his achievements are anything but. After a July 2009 moped accident, Nagy broke his right wrist and right heel, suffered ligament damage in his foot and bruised his ribs. Thankful just to be alive, Nagy made his first career start at center Nov. 13 against Indiana, less than 18 months after that brutal accident and was twice UW’s co-offensive player of the week.
Anderson, meanwhile, hauled in the third-most receptions on the team (23) and contributed 223 receiving yards. Kyle Jefferson, a 6-5, 180 lb. receiver also doubled as a UW track & field star. Jefferson finished the year with four catches for 65 yards. Wisconsin’s final senior, running back Zach Brown, will redshirt this year and return in 2011. However, in his first three years at UW, Brown compiled 1,152 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 20 receptions and 105 receiving yards.
So while this laundry list of Wisconsin’s most experienced players might just seem to be a story of numbers, it’s anything but. Rather, this senior class has done so much more. First and foremost, it’s keyed the Badgers’ success this year. Without Carimi and Moffitt, there’s no way Wisconsin produces the nation’s 11th-best rushing attack. Without Tolzien, there’s no way the Badgers escape Ohio State and Iowa in consecutive weeks – and without those wins, there’s no way Wisconsin rebounds from the Michigan State loss to recapture the Big Ten’s highest BCS ranking.
And without the less heralded Badgers like Nagy and Anderson, there’s no way any of that happens. Clay, Ball and White have justifiably garnered so much attention for Wisconsin’s offensive prowess this year, but without the aforementioned seniors, the offense is mediocre, at best. And without St. Jean, Brinkley, Valai and Sorensen, the defense doesn’t allow the Badgers to finish 11-1.
Therein lies the key – no matter the stats, the recognition and the attention, Bielema’s seniors have one singular contribution that has meant the most to Wisconsin football in 2010. They’ve won ball games, and come New Year’s Day, they’ll likely have a chance to win the Granddaddy of Them All.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Have a favorite Wisconsin senior? Love the whole class? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @mikefiammetta.