Before Russell Wilson, there was Scott Tolzien.
Tolzien, in many ways, was the perfect quarterback for a 2010 Wisconsin Badgers team that stunned the nation versus then-undefeated, No. 1 Ohio State, trounced Big Ten opponents down the stretch and very nearly won the Rose Bowl. He was accurate, decisive and did not make many mistakes at all.
Now, in 2011, Wilson matches all of the best traits of Tolzien. Through Wisconsin’s four-game non-conference slate, Wilson threw 11 touchdowns to only one interception, and the Badgers walloped their non-Big Ten foes by a combined 194-34 margin. Sure, the competition was inferior, but in 2010, Wisconsin beat a much weaker San Jose State by only 13 points in Week 2 and barely escaped Arizona State by one point in the very next game.
The Big Ten opener came for those Badgers in 2010 in the form of a road trip to Michigan State, and it ended with what seemed to be a crushing 34-24 loss. Of course, looking back, it seems fair to argue that something about that game in East Lansing, Mich., drew those Badgers together instead of pushing them apart, allowing for the sort of team unity and chemistry that is absolutely required for the run UW eventually compiled in November.
Wisconsin’s 2011 Big Ten opener unfolded on a remarkably different stage, with the Nebraska Cornhuskers coming to Madison — bringing ESPN and its College GameDay pregame show for the second consecutive year. The primetime stage, after last season, was familiar for this year’s team, but the level of competition wasn’t. Nebraska, even with a defense that was widely perceived to have underachieved in September, brought a more physical, skilled and potentially intimidating brand of football than anything Wisconsin saw through its opening games.
Back to Wilson.
The Badgers, of course, crushed the Huskers Saturday night, 48-17. Wilson resumed his stretch of brilliant play, playing his best game to date as a Badger. 14 of his 20 passes (70 percent) were completed for 255 yards and two touchdowns, and he also added one rushing touchdown on a 10-yard scamper off a naked bootleg that completely hoodwinked Nebraska’s defense.
On the play, Wilson took the snap and faked the handoff to Ball as fullback Bradie Ewing and tight end Jacob Pedersen (who was coming in motion from the left side) surged forward to lead block. Wilson paused for a split second to sell the fake, then spun left and raced for the endzone. A Nebraska linebacker and defensive back closed on him, but Wilson was able to outrace them with relative ease for the touchdown.
That play came with 11:21 remaining in the third quarter, and it put Wisconsin ahead 34-14. The Badgers proceeded to score two more touchdowns, while the Huskers added only a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Wilson’s run, both at the moment and in hindsight, seemed to epitomize the changes the former North Carolina State quarterback has brought to Wisconsin. Sure, it’s probably fair to say that Tolzien would not have made that play with his feet (though Tolzien, like Wilson, was also wonderfully adept at selling the play-action). Heck, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst probably wouldn’t even have called the naked with Tolzien under center.
But beyond the, “Oh look, the Badgers finally have a fast quarterback,” sentiment, Wilson still has brought, or caused, more changes to the Wisconsin offense.
With Tolzien at quarterback, the Badgers were a masterfully efficient offense that could chew the clock with running backs Ball, John Clay and James White carving up defenses behind the mammoth UW offensive line. Tolzien also proved eventually that he was more than just a game manager, making several key late-game throws (e.g. that game-winning drive at Iowa, one week after the Ohio State game) that played a huge role in his reaching the National Football League. A stable of trusty receivers and tight end Lance Kendricks gave him plenty of receiving options, and the UW offense seemed to be more lethal than in any point of recent memory.
Now? After seeing what Wilson did against legitimate competition, it’s clear he is the Wisconsin offense.
After his stellar play in the non-conference slate, Wilson began garnering some Heisman Trophy hype. It was certainly warranted, though the question of if he could win seemed to center around the question of if the Wisconsin offense was just too balanced with too many other awesomely talented weapons in Ball and White and wide receivers Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis.
After shocking Nebraska, Wilson surely helped his Heisman candidacy. But he also put some distance in terms of value between himself and Ball, White, Toon and Abbrederis. As balanced as Wisconsin’s offense may be, it both starts and ends with Wilson’s ability to make plays with his feet, throw the ball with impressive zip and accuracy, sell the play-action and prevent turnovers.
Any success the Badgers continue to have will be undoubtedly tied to Wilson, who has extended his reach into all aspects of UW’s offense. The evidence was there in September, and after facing a big-time Big Ten opponent Saturday night, the conclusion was reached.
Mike is a senior majoring in journalism. Have a different take on Wilson’s value to the Badgers? Let him know on Twitter @mikefiammetta and be sure to follow @BHeraldSports for all the latest Badgers news.