Badgers seniors close out home careers against Penn State
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON--Wisconsin tight end Jacob Pedersen pondered the question many of his fellow seniors faced this week as they prepared to face Penn State in their final home game at 2:30 p.m. today.
How would you describe the senior class?
“I don’t really have one word to describe this group,” Pedersen said.
For this class, perseverance trumps all other labels.
“Absolutely,” fifth-year senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said.
From the ability of several players to overcome injuries that threatened to end their days on the football field to coaching upheaval that resulted in some players working under four different assistants in a span of four years, this class should be remembered for its ability to persevere in the face of adversity.
The list of examples is lengthy, but consider the stories of Chris Borland, Brendan Kelly, Armstrong and Curt Phillips.
Borland’s sophomore season in 2010 ended in Week 3 after he suffered an ugly shoulder injury.
When he returned in 2011, some UW fans wondered whether his shoulders would be able to withstand the pounding. They did and Borland, who has adjusted to four position coaches, shares the Big Ten record for forced fumbles (14) with Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue. He will leave UW as one of the better linebackers in America.
Kelly, a sixth-year senior, suffered a season-ending broken hand after playing in only three games as a freshman—in 2008. After a painful pelvic injury forced him to miss all of the 2010 season, he was told by the staff it might be wise to consider quitting and going on a medical scholarship.
“I said give me eight weeks,” Kelly said. “And if in eight weeks I’m not healthy we’ll go in a different direction. But I got healthy in those eight weeks, things turned around for me and I’m glad they did.”
Over the last three seasons Kelly has played in 35 games with 20 starts. He is playing his best football at UW and remembers his refusal to walk away from the game he loves.
“No matter what happens you just can’t give into it,” he said. “No matter how many times you get injured, don’t give in.”
That attitude is why Kelly is on the field long before pregame warmups, working on pass-rush moves and his pass-drops.
“I always believe that the only way I know how to get better is to work at it,” he said. “There is no magic pill. There is no magic book you can read. If you just work, work and work some more you’re going to get better at it.”
The last time Penn State visited Camp Randall, on Nov. 26, 2011, Armstrong suffered a partial dislocation of his right hip while covering a kickoff.
“I was a little scared,” said Armstrong, who also has worked with four position coaches.
Armstrong left the field in an ambulance and his parents, in Illinois watching their son, Thad, vie for a state high school title, found out by phone Ethan was in the hospital.
Armstrong, a former walk-on, has undergone surgery on both hips and both shoulders. The 2011 Penn State game was the first his parents missed since he joined the UW program. It was also the last.
“We’re not superstitious at all,” Armstrong said, laughing. “Not at all.”
Armstrong, by the way, has started all 25 games over the last two seasons and might be the most versatile linebacker on the team.
Phillips’ history of knee injuries has been thoroughly documented. You won’t find a player in the UW locker room who hasn’t been inspired by the amount of sweat that poured from the body of the sixth-year senior during multiple rehabilitation sessions.
“Curt always believed in himself,” Kelly said.
Phillips’ determination led to five starts last season. And although he’ll likely never start another game for UW, his accomplishments last season always should be remembered and held up as a reminder of what can be achieved if you refuse to surrender.
Senior tailback James White has missed one game because of injury, during his freshman season in 2010.
His perseverance has been between the ears.
The Big Ten freshman of the year when he rushed for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2010, White’s game was obscured by Montee Ball’s greatness in ‘11 and ‘12.
This season White has rushed for 1,281 yards, an average of 6.5 per carry, and 13 touchdowns despite sharing the workload with Melvin Gordon. Gordon has more yards (1,375) and a better per-carry average (8.2) but White has a string of four consecutive games of at least 100 yards or more.
He was limited to seven carries for 13 yards in the overtime loss to Penn State last season because Ball got most of the work.
With UW (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) needing to win to keep alive its BCS at-large hopes, look for White to get more work against the Nittany Lions than he did last season.
“I didn’t get too many carries,” White said quietly. “But I have my opportunity now and my last game here, I want to go out with a bang.”