In the grand scheme of a Big Ten championship season, the little things often go unnoticed.
But UW head coach Bret Bielema isn’t spending his time talking about the Big Ten’s highest scoring offense averaging over 43 points a game, or his team’s 46 rushing touchdowns.
Instead, the Badgers are most proud of two “little” statistics.
First: Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in turnover margin (The Badgers have forced 23 turnovers while giving up just nine).
Second: UW is the least penalized team in the entire country (Wisconsin has been penalized just 35 times in 12 games).
It’s those two stats that are both of point of pride for the Badgers, as well as a reason for their success this season.
“The least-penalized team in college football is huge,” Bielema said. “We weren’t beating ourselves before the snap. To be where we are in turnovers and turnover margin is incredible, just the way we’ve handled that aspect of it.”
But under Bielema, those two statistics didn’t always work in Wisconsin’s favor. In the 2008 season, a year where the Badgers went 7-6, UW was plagued by untimely mistakes and costly turnovers.
A pre-snap penalty in the final seconds against Michigan cost the Badgers the game-tying two-point conversion that year. A holding call that brought back a big fourth quarter run and a personal foul penalty on Bielema led to a late collapse against the Spartans in East Lansing.
Those mistakes are just a few haunting memories that remain from the 2008 season and they haven’t been forgotten.
“What I took away from that season was that the little things matter,” senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “Missed alignments matter and just your average second practice in an August two-a-day, or the walk through before a spring game, all those little things add up. A lot of times that can be the difference.”
Senior guard John Moffitt started for UW during that 2008 season as a sophomore and he acknowledged the lack of attention to detail that persisted throughout that six-loss campaign.
“I didn’t respect [the little things] either,” Moffitt said. “We all realigned. Last year the coaches really made it a point of doing all the little things right.”
The Badgers took strides toward removing mental mistakes during a 10-win season in 2009, and now they’ve thrived in that department here in 2010, a season that will conclude in Pasadena. Flags are hardly ever thrown on the Badgers and fumbles (an issue that surfaced at times last year) and interceptions have been practically non-existent.
The Badgers haven’t beaten themselves, and that’s making them very hard to defeat.
For UW’s immense talent to come together this year and meet expectations those little details needed to be emphasized. Bielema saw that process take place right from the start, and if mistakes persisted there were consequences.
“I think it goes back again to January and winter conditioning,” Bielema said. “If guys are over the line when we’re running a sprint, if we’re not finishing through the line, during spring ball, they’ll be the first tell you, if we have penalties during practice, if you have a penalty, a lot of times I’ll make you log roll 100 yards at the end of practice for every penalty you had. Just reinforce in their mind and condition that you can’t allow those things to happen.”
Bielema couldn’t allow those things to happen, and his senior captains wouldn’t allow it either.
Moffitt and fellow captain Gabe Carimi weren’t afraid to keep their teammates in line when they felt the focus was lacking.
“We made it a big deal. It is a big deal,” Moffitt said. “Too many drives offensively two years ago were just shot in the foot because of a penalty. Its amazing how the game can be so close, and one small detail can change an entire game.”
Small details can change an entire season. The Badgers learned that the hard way in 2008.
Now proper execution coupled with a detail-oriented approach has allowed Wisconsin to return to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 11 years.
Athletes tend to live by the adage that big players make big plays in big games, but there’s more to that story.
They make the little ones too.
“The little things really do turn into the big ones,” Moffitt said.