Bret Bielema is done talking about fumbles. John Clay declined to comment.
Unfortunately for the Wisconsin head coach and running back, however, the questions about their team’s ball security are not going to go away. Not with the way they played Saturday against Wofford.
“I’m done answering questions about fumbles,” Bielema said. “I don’t want it to be an issue. I understand it’s out there. What do you want me to answer with?”
In the first quarter alone, the Badgers turned the ball over twice on a pair of fumbles from the team’s one-two punch at running back, Clay and Zach Brown. If not for a forced fumble and strong defensive stop following the two fumbles, the game against the Terriers could have gone much differently.
“That was a poor effort with us of handling the ball,” Brown said. “I would say (it was) both a great job of the defense to be able to get the ball and for me, just (I have) got to hold the ball tighter and have better ball security.”
Needing better ball security is putting it lightly for the Badgers after Bielema’s squad coughed the ball up six times Saturday, which led to three turnovers. If Brown and Clay struggle to hang on to the ball next week, UW could be in for a long game.
The ball security issues could not have come at a worse time for Clay, who was elevated to the starting role following a 143-yard performance last week. Bielema said he wanted to see how Clay would do after taking the reins, and it looks like he got his answer.
“We made a special emphasis all week to him and Zach, and in regards to the way they played today it wasn’t what we needed it to be,” Bielema said. “Sometimes the best amount of pressure can come from their teammates and that’s what I encouraged after the game.”
That was not all Bielema wanted to do after the game. His first thought was to suspend the Fifth Quarter performance by the UW marching band and take his offense on the field for some exchange and ball security drills.
“It was an NCAA violation today if we went out and worked, (but) I wanted to go out and work on exchanges right after the game today,” Bielema said. “I announced it at halftime, ‘Anybody having fumble exchanges issues in the second half, we’re going to go out there and we’ll suspend Fifth Quarter and work on making sure we have ball security.’ ”
Bielema always says he believes it’s not about what happens, it’s how you react to what happens, and it appears his response to ball security issues is pretty simple: work on it early and often this week in practice.
“We’ll be repping it tomorrow, I guarantee you,” he said.
With Brown and Clay having issues holding onto the ball, redshirt freshman Erik Smith earned his most significant playing-time of the season, taking the ball 10 times for 54 yards against Wofford.
And with Smith behind them appearing ready to take over at a moment’s notice, Brown knows the importance of playing well and taking care of the ball.
“With us, if you put that ball on the ground, you don’t know if you’ll get back in or not,” he said. “For me to go out there and face my mistakes and have better ball security and have the game I did in the second half was great for me confidence-wise.”
Brown and Clay weren’t the only ones, however, who had ball security issues and a backup come in behind them and play well in Saturday’s game. Tolzien, who also fumbled once, was taken out of the game for much of the second half — when the game was well in hand — only to watch Phillips impress with his legs, rushing for a game-high 92 yards on just four carries.
When asked about the fumbles, Tolzien echoed Bielema’s sentiments about reacting to what happens.
“We don’t want to start that way obviously, but that’s going to happen sometimes. We faced adversity and I thought we did a great job bouncing back,” Tolzien said. “We just have to practice that and make that a point of emphasis and move on.”
Fortunately for Tolzien and Wisconsin, the defense responded well to the team’s turnovers, as only one of the three — the last one — resulted in a score for Wofford.
Much of their success came in the fact the team had three takeaways to balance out the three turnovers by the offense.
“Guys never flinched,” senior captain Chris Maragos said. “The offense turned it over right away and we got the ball right back. I’m just seeing time and time again different guys on our defense step up. I think that’s phenomenal.”