Only 11 penalties in 4 games and a healthy overal roster makes head coach Bret Bielema a happy man as conference play begins in East Lansing, MI. this Saturday.[/media-credit]

Coming off of an impressive 70-3 triumph over Austin Peay, head coach Bret Bielema is enthused by the relative health of his football team as it prepares to enter Big Ten play against Michigan State.

“From a health standpoint I’m very excited because probably since the start of fall camp this is the healthiest we’ve been,” Bielema said.

Besides losing linebacker Chris Borland for the season last week, almost all of the Badgers are ready for action. The exceptions are sophomore quarterback Curt Phillips, who hasn’t been cleared to play and will not be involved for one-to-two weeks, and senior receiver David Gilreath, who is still recovering from a concussion. Bielema said a decision about whether or not Gilreath will play will be made Tuesday.

Sound Fundamentals

After committing only 11 penalties in four games, Bielema applauded his team for its discipline and fundamentally sound play.

“I really like the clean play that they [have shown]. It’s guys taking care of business. It means that they’re concentrating on the details. I believe we’re up there very high [not only in the Big Ten] but also in the country,” Bielema said in terms of total penalties committed.

“Again, just the presence and the awareness of our guys that [penalties] do make a difference is very, very important for us to have success.”

Bielema stressed the importance of avoiding penalties and said he sees them as detractors that inhibit quality performance.

Clay’s Role

As the Badgers prepare to face a stout rush defense in East Lansing and other ensuing Big Ten opponents, there have been questions about the extent of star running back John Clay’s role in the offense and what to expect in upcoming games. Despite having gained over 500 yards rushing in just 4 games, some fans want to see Clay get more opportunities. Bielema though, just wants Clay to remain fresh throughout the game and maximize his involvement in the offense.

“I don’t worry about his numbers or anything like that; I worry about his performance,” Bielema said. “We want to have John for four quarters for as many games as we can,” he said.

Bielema explained that Clay’s performance is a reflection of the Badgers’ system and offensive philosophy.

“John is going to get yards. He’s going to get stats…but, really, that’s a byproduct of what we do. John benefits by being a tailback in our program…That’s the part that we can kind of recruit to here; you can come here and be that guy, and if you don’t want to be him, then we’ll get someone else,” Bielema said.

New avenue in passing game

With the spotlight focused directly on tight end Lance Kendricks in the passing game, developing other players and outlets for Scott Tolzien could only benefit the Badgers. Freshman tight end Jacob Pedersen, who caught a touchdown pass Saturday, could be a prime example.

“We want to get him a lot of reps,” Bielema said. “Jacob is a very all-around good athlete. [He] really understands the game now. That little play at the back of the end zone may have done more for him than anything I could say or do.”

Outlook heading into conference play

As for the general state of his team, Bielema is pleased, but, like any coach, sees room for improvement.

To reach their high goals this season, the Badgers must continue to get better.

“I’m happy with were they’re at. We’re not anywhere close to being where I think we can be,” Bielema said. “We need to keep improving.”

Saturday’s matchup in what Bielema labeled a “hostile environment” should be a valuable opportunity for the Badgers to gauge their strengths and weaknesses as they head into the substantive portion of their schedule.

But Bielema noted that he has genuine confidence in his team and is excited to see them perform Saturday.

“They really do believe in what we do. There’s no wandering eyes, there’s no ‘here we go again’,” Bielema said. “It’s just ‘okay let’s do what we do’.”