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UW seniors seeking payback

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McClatchy Tribune
November 11, 2009
— If University of Wisconsin football fans felt as if they had died and gone someplace south of heaven last season while watching the Badgers’ stunning loss at Michigan, imagine how the players who lived through that debacle felt.

“Last year,” junior strong safety Jay Valai said, “that was like a funeral service.”


Leading by 19-0 at halftime of the Big Ten Conference opener, the Wisconsin players were euphoric, and perhaps a bit cocky, as they headed toward the visiting locker room for the halftime intermission.


Valai remembers how Wisconsin players joked with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps while on the sideline during the first half and then talked smack heading up the tunnel that led to the locker rooms armed with that 19-point lead.


“At halftime we were walking into the locker room, and people on the team were talking noise to Michigan,” he said. “And then the gates opened up.”


The Wolverines, who committed five turnovers and managed just 24 yards on 21 plays in the first half, wrestled the momentum away from the visitors in the second half and a fragile Wisconsin team crumbled and suffered a galling, 27-25 loss that lingered for weeks.


“That was a demoralizing feeling,” Valai said. “We thought we had the game.”


Those memories remain vibrant as Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2) prepares to host Michigan


(5-5, 1-5) at 11 a.m. on Saturday.


“That one hurt,” said junior left tackle Gabe Carimi, who usually moves on to the next game with ease whether Wisconsin wins or loses. “When you look back you can see where the season went after that one loss.”


Into a death spiral.


Wisconsin suffered a 20-17 home loss to Ohio State the next week. That was followed by a 48-7 home loss to Penn State and a 38-16 loss at Iowa.


The Badgers’ promising 3-0 start was gone, along with the team’s Big Ten title hopes.


“Last year’s team, once one thing went wrong you knew something else was going to go wrong,” Valai said. “You felt it on the sideline.


“This year’s team … We always think we’re coming through no matter the situation. That is the biggest change I’ve seen in this team from last year.”


Sophomore defensive end J.J. Watt felt his teammates’ pain from his parents’ home in Pewaukee.


Watt, who was redshirting after transferring from Central Michigan, was watching the game on TV with his two younger brothers.


“I remember being up 19-0 at halftime and feeling pretty good,” Watt said. “We threw a pizza in the oven and then things took a turn for the worst …”


Watching the second half was hellish.


“I was watching it with my little brothers so they weren’t old enough to hear the things I wanted to say,” Watt said. “I was definitely getting frustrated, especially not being able to do anything about it …


“But we’ve definitely learned from those mistakes … You realize you can’t feel too good at any point in a game. Anything can happen.”


This game matters to the Wisconsin players, from freshmen who were high school seniors last fall to fifth-year seniors like O’Brien Schofield, who hasn’t forgotten the loss last season or the 2006 loss in Ann Arbor, Wisconsin’s lone loss that season.


“This game has really been circled on my list,” he said. “Senior Day. I’m going to be extra jacked up.


“I’m going to make sure our guys are prepared and ready to go out there and play four quarters of football.”



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