Commentary

Wisconsin overcomes one more hurdle

Updated: October 23, 2010, 10:50 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien didn't even know the Badgers were going to run a fake punt with about six minutes to play in Saturday's game at Iowa.

"I looked up and saw this tall, skinny guy running down the middle of the field," Tolzien said. "Their crowd was quiet and our sideline was going crazy."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMontee Ball reached out and scored the game-winning touchdown after a fake punt 11 plays earlier.

The tall, skinny guy was Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman, who ran 17 yards for a first down, helping the No. 13 Badgers keep alive their winning drive in the final minutes. Wisconsin sophomore Montee Ball scored the winning 8-yard touchdown run with 1:06 to play in a 31-30 victory over the No. 15 Hawkeyes in front of a sold-out crowd of 70,585 fans at Kinnick Stadium.

"In any big game, you've really got to keep your foot on the gas pedal," Tolzien said. "I think whether you're up or down, you've got to stay in attack mode and have confidence that it's going to work."

That's exactly what Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema did, even after the Badgers fell behind 30-24 midway through the fourth quarter. With the game seemingly slipping from his team's grasp, Bielema signaled for a fake punt from the sideline. The play was called "chain," and Wisconsin didn't even install it in its game plan until earlier this week.

"Once we saw the personnel out on the field, it was game on," Bielema said.

The Badgers' fake punt worked to perfection.

"My heart was beating," Nortman said. "I was nervous. I was excited. I was all of the above. But once I took off, I only saw green in front of me."

Eleven plays later, Ball took a handoff and dove into the end zone for the wining touchdown. He cross the goal line moments before the football slipped out of his grasp; it was confirmed by replay officials, and the Badgers went on to defeat a ranked team for the second week in a row, after stunning then-No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 at Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 16.

"I think it's another good win," Wisconsin guard John Moffitt said. "This is another good building block. I think a lot of people were looking for validation, but this is just another good road victory for us."

Actually, Wisconsin's seventh victory of the season might end up meaning much more than that. By defeating the Hawkeyes for the first time in three seasons, Wisconsin remains one game behind No. 7 Michigan State in the Big Ten standings.

Michigan State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) defeated the Badgers 34-24 on Oct. 2, so the Spartans would have to lose twice for the Badgers to win the Big Ten. Still, the Badgers are in pretty good position to finish 11-1 and possibly play in a lucrative BCS bowl game -- if they win their last four games and a few of the teams ahead of them in the BCS standings lose.

"The last two weeks were both signature wins," Nortman said. "They both mean a lot to our team."

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBret Bielema has his team in position to possibly finish the season 11-1.
After an open date next week, the Badgers' last four games go like this: at Purdue, home against Indiana, at Michigan and home against Northwestern.

While Wisconsin's most difficult games are in its rear-view mirror, the Spartans must still play at Iowa next week and at Penn State in their regular-season finale.

That's why winning at Iowa was so important; it was the last major hurdle for the Badgers.

"I learned a long time ago from Barry Alvarez that you've got to win games like this on the road if you're going to do anything in this league," Bielema said.

Alvarez, who coached the Badgers for 16 seasons from 1990 to 2005 and is now the school's athletics director, called the fake punt a "great call." He was even more impressed with the team's ability to regroup so quickly after stunning the Buckeyes seven days ago.

"I'm very proud," Alvarez said. "We played an emotional game last week. We played a physical game last week. You knew this game was going to be a fourth-quarter game. To come out and win in the fourth quarter, I couldn't be prouder. I think this is the toughest place to play in the league, other than our place."

But even playing in a hostile environment on the road, Wisconsin made the game's biggest plays when it needed them most.

Iowa scored the game's first touchdown, but Badgers defensive end J.J. Watt blocked Michael Meyer's extra-point kick to make it 6-3 with 2:31 to play in the first quarter. Watt's block ended up being the difference in the final score.

"It ends up being the game," Bielema said. "It's a good example of how our guys play every snap. It's another thing we really stress. I've always told my defense that the truest test to me of what a defense is all about is how they play the PAT. Anytime you're on the field and it's a PAT situation, it means you were just scored upon. How are you going to react?"

Wisconsin showed it had the right reactions on Saturday. A few more weeks like this and the Badgers might find themselves in a BCS bowl game for the first time since Alvarez took them to the Rose Bowl following the 1999 season.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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