Strong bonds set this Badger team apart

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Jeff Potrykus
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
— Two years removed from the ugliest season in Bret Bielema’s five-year run as Wisconsin’s head coach, strong safety Jay Valai insists the 2008 UW team had more physical talent than any of the five teams of which he has been a member since he came to Madison.

“But the one thing this team does is play together,” Valai, a fifth-year senior from Euless, Texas, said with pride. “We have a lot more chemistry than that team did.

“We had friends then, but you had little cliques here and there and guys not buying into the program.”

As No. 4 Wisconsin (11-1) prepares to face No. 3 TCU (12-0) in the 2011 Rose Bowl on Saturday, reflecting on that ugly season can be instructive and should provide a better appreciation for the current team.

The 2008 team, Bielema’s third as head coach, opened the season ranked No. 13 nationally but slumped to a 3-5 Big Ten Conference mark and finished 7-6 over-all after suffering a humiliating 42-13 loss to an average Florida State team in the Champs Sports Bowl.

According to many of the current seniors the lack of “program guys” up and down the roster was the team’s Achilles’ heel.

“The bad joke used to be that you were a ‘program guy,’” said Valai, a redshirt sophomore in ’08.

To some of the veteran players in the locker room, a program guy was akin to being the coaches’ pet.

“That was a derogatory term in the locker room, which was used a lot,” said left guard John Moffitt, a fifth-year senior captain and first-team All-American. “Now it is never used. It is more like: ‘Get in line. Why aren’t you doing what we’re doing?’

“If you’re not a program guy—and we don’t even use that terminology—if you’re not doing what we’re doing you can get out.

“Maybe that was the biggest key. Maybe that was the difference.”

The ’08 team lacked consistent quarterback play, which handcuffed offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. A lack of depth on the defensive line led to players wearing down late in games. A lack of leadership and mental toughness prevented that team from overcoming adversity.

A poor job by the coaching staff exacerbated the problems.

There were missed assignments, poor clock management, poor communication and Bielema too often spoke before thinking.

“It was a long Christmas break and it gave me a lot of time to ponder the entire season and what I needed to do,” said junior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym, a redshirt freshman in ’08. “I think everyone was anxious to get back because we needed to change our complexion.

“And we came back and we worked really hard. I don’t think we’d be the team we are now without that season.

“That season set us back so we could take three steps forward, really. It was so disappointing. It was embarrassing. We needed to re-evaluate ourselves and we’ve turned it around 180 degrees.”

The dramatic turnaround since that season has been documented thoroughly.

Bielema has matured, as most young coaches do, and became more of a disciplinarian. Even the most innocuous detail—in offseason conditioning, drills, practice—became critical, and the players were expected to toe the line.

Leaders emerged in 2009, with defensive end O’Brien Schofield and free safety Chris Maragos being two of the more prominent players. They led by deed and word from off-season workouts through the final play in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl, a 20-14 victory over Miami, that gave Wisconsin a 10-3 record.

As he stood in a somber and divided locker room after the ’08 Champs Sports Bowl, tight end Lance Kendricks surveyed his surroundings and had a curious thought.

Kendricks, then a redshirt sophomore who had yet to blossom into a National Football League prospect, looked into the future and saw greatness.

“I knew by the time we’d get to (be) seniors we’d make some changes,” he said. “All last year and then coming into this year we’d sit down and have meetings and just talk about what we needed to do and how we needed to approach things.

“I think that made the difference.”

Wisconsin’s roster lists 13 seniors, a relatively small class.

Yet seniors like Kendricks, Moffitt, left tackle Gabe Carimi, quarterback Scott Tolzien, wide receiver Isaac Anderson and Bill Nagy, who has played guard, tight end and center, have been instrumental in the two-year resurgence.

“Guys were on their own back then,” Kendricks said. “They weren’t really together. We didn’t have a bond then. Now we do. You can put any two guys in any room and they’ll be fine. Everybody likes each other.”

The junior class has been outstanding as well, led by fourth-year junior defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watt sat out the ’08 season after transferring to Wisconsin from Central Michigan. He watched the loss to Florida State on TV.

“I was sitting at home thinking: ‘Man, we need to have a turnaround,’” Watt said. “The guys came back and you could just feel it. The first day we got back from winter conditioning there was a sense we need to get this thing back on track.

“We hit the ground running and never looked back. We’ve attacked every single day. It sounds kind of silly, but we’ve had a 1-0 mind-set every single day and it has led us to where we are and we’re going to Pasadena.

“So 1-0 one more time would be just fine.”

All signs point toward Watt, who blossomed into an All-American this season, entering the 2011 NFL draft after the Rose Bowl. Yet even if the Rose Bowl is his last game in a Wisconsin uniform, senior wide receiver David Gilreath believes the Pewaukee High School graduate has done yeoman’s work to help keep the program on the right path.

“A program guy is J.J. Watt now,” Gilreath said, “a poster boy for the team, a guy who does everything right on and off the field.

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be mentioned as a program guy. I think those people are haters.”

Last updated: 3:44 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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