As painful a memory as it remains, the Wisconsin Badgers’ two-point loss in the Rose Bowl has given them everything they have entering the 2011 season.
New quarterback Russell Wilson chose Wisconsin over Auburn and his professional baseball career because, above all else, his best chance for winning football games is in Madison. The Badgers’ primetime schedule — UW will play in four of the Big Ten’s seven primetime matchups on ESPN this year — was made possible by the explosiveness of last year’s squad that won games by margins as large as 67, 63 and 47 points. Any national title aspirations — and depending on who you talk to, there are plenty — stem from the fact that despite losing the likes of J.J. Watt, Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and John Clay to the National Football League, Wisconsin’s offense remains one of the nation’s most potent, and the defense returns six starters from last year’s No. 20 unit in total defense.
Simply put, last year’s 21-19 loss to Texas Christian University in Pasadena won’t just be washed away by the waves of a new season — not by the team, not by the media and certainly not by Badger fans. For as steady and pragmatic a program as UW is, led by head coach Bret Bielema’s “1-0” philosophy, any destination that isn’t Pasadena or New Orleans (the site of this year’s BCS National Championship Game) will be viewed as a disappointment.
“It’s definitely a reminder day in and day out,” safety Aaron Henry said of last year’s Rose Bowl loss. “But I just think with the guys that we have, they didn’t lose sight of what happened last year. They’re focused on even bigger things now this year. It was definitely unfortunate what happened last year, but guys have been working nonstop to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”
New quarterback leads the charge
When Wilson officially became a Badger in what seemed more like a free agent transaction than collegiate transfer (He’s eligible to play immediately since he already earned his degree at North Carolina State), the buzz around UW immediately surged from Big Ten title favorite to potential national title contender.
Wilson, listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, is a dual-threat quarterback with the kind of mobility that simply hasn’t been present in recent Badger quarterbacks. In three years as the starting Wolfpack quarterback, Wilson compiled 1,089 rushing yards (an average of 363 per season) and 17 touchdowns. For comparison, last year’s starting UW quarterback, Scott Tolzien, has -9 career rushing yards to his name.
Of course, Wilson also excelled with his arm, throwing for 1,180 yards, 76 touchdowns and 26 interceptions at N.C. State. Wilson completed 57.8 percent of his passes and averaged just fewer than three touchdowns for every interception thrown.
Clearly, Wilson was a player too enticing for the Badgers to pass over. Acquiring your starting quarterback the summer before he’s set to start is a rarity in college football, and for Wisconsin it’s nothing short of shocking. So far in fall camp, Wilson has been everything that’s been advertised, and he’s seamlessly made the transition into UW’s locker room. Along with fellow seniors fullback Bradie Ewing, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym and Henry, Wilson was voted a captain by his teammates. Quarterbacks are typically synonymous with leadership and the responsibilities that come with the “captain” title, but naming someone who hasn’t played a single down for the team is still eye opening.
“I’m blessed, more than anything,” Wilson said. “I’m excited to be a part of this, just to be a part of this team in general, whether I was a captain or not. I’m still going to lead, even if I wasn’t captain. I’m excited to be a part of that and something special.”
For Bielema, Wilson’s acclimation into the locker room was the main obstacle. Since his addition in late June, there haven’t been many issues to worry about.
“The maturity level that that young man has and the way he can process everything going on around him — whether it be schematically x’s and o’s, whether it be locker room chemistry, whether it be media chemistry — he’s got a pretty good handle on things,” Bielema said.
Leadership still veteran, but changed
Last year, Watt, Carimi and Moffitt, plus quarterback Scott Tolzien and safety Jay Valai, were UW’s undisputed leaders. Tolzien was calm, steady and led by example, while Valai could trash talk and lay the wood with the best of them. Carimi and Moffitt were unrivaled in their physical presence and natural ability along the offensive line, and Watt set the tone in regard to on-field production.
This year, they’re all gone. So are middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean and tight end Lance Kendricks, two other players who aptly led their respective positions.
In naming four seniors captains this year, the Badgers clearly plan to follow whatever veteran experience they have. Henry might be the most talkative of the bunch, and his lingering memories of Pasadena alone seem sufficient to fuel UW this season.
“It motivated us a ton [this fall], man,” Henry said of last year’s Rose Bowl loss. “You do everything you have to do during the season so that you will be placed in a huge game on a national level like that, but you come up a little bit short — it definitely leaves a sour taste in your mouth.”
Ewing and Butrym, meanwhile, seems bound to carry the roles vacated by Watt and Tolzien — quiet, but efficient and supremely productive. The 6-foot, 245-pound Ewing had arguably his finest season as a blocker in 2010, and he caught eight passes (the first of his career) for 82 yards and two touchdowns out of the backfield. Butrym started all 13 games and recorded 28 tackles (three for loss) and 2.5 sacks.
Chances are the Badgers will find key contributions from some surprise candidate, a là Watt in 2010. But before that can become a priority, the Badgers’ four captains and the rest of their veteran leaders must lead the way.
With Ohio State facing tremendous uncertainty and Nebraska still awaiting its introduction to the conference, the Big Ten is up for grabs — right when there have never been more eager eyes watching to see how its 12 teams perform. For a program that seemingly grows closer every Saturday to turning the corner toward becoming a national power, nothing is more pressing than a return trip to Pasadena — or beyond.
“Guys are just itching to get back to the promised land, wherever that may be.,” Henry said. “Hopefully it’s a huge, huge bowl game, but guys just want to get better each and every week. I think if we can do that, the sky’s definitely the limit.”