The Forgotten Hero: Jeff Duckworth strikes again

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Jeff Duckworth came an officiating mistake away from playing the unlikely hero role yet again Saturday when he broke a tackle on his way to a 51-yard catch to set the Badgers up for a potential game-winning field goal against Arizona State. The Badgers say there's a reason the senior with 29 career catches always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

MADISON -- His position coach called him "The Legend," yet he can't be found on Wisconsin's two-deep depth chart. He's battled injuries throughout his career, yet he made one of the greatest plays in program history, and possibly the biggest of this young Badgers season.

Before the officiating blunder heard 'round the world, Jeff Duckworth was in line Saturday to add to his legacy of play making in the most crucial of moments. His 51-yard catch-and-run set up Wisconsin for a field goal attempt that could have sent the Badgers to a 3-0 start had it ever actually happened.

Despite just 29 career catches, Badger fans are quite used to seeing the senior make the most of his opportunities.

"It's kind of the running joke that he only makes big plays," senior quarterback Curt Phillips said. "But it's not a joke. He's come through for us time and time again."

Most noteworthy was Duckworth's improbable catch on 4th-and-6 that set up the game-winning touchdown in the 2011 Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State. One of his nine grabs last season was also a last-minute touchdown that forced overtime at Penn State.

New head coach Gary Andersen and wide receivers coach Chris Beatty both expressed interest in getting Duckworth more opportunities during his senior year, but back problems have limited him since the spring and he also tweaked his hamstring during his most recent memorable play Saturday.

"He's one of those guys that makes plays every time he gets in and gets opportunities to," Beatty said. "Anytime you need a big play, it just seems like he happens to be where the ball is. Whatever that is, you can't really teach it. He's somebody that doesn't shrink under pressure, and he makes plays in the biggest moments.

"We need him. It's not one of those things where we want him. We need him. So hopefully at some point he does get to 100 percent. We just want to get him as healthy as we can get him and ride with that."

"He's been in those situations. He knows what he's doing. He goes out there and does his job." -Curt Phillips on Jeff Duckworth

Even with limited snaps, the Badgers want Duckworth on the field when the game's on the line. No matter how many snaps he's played or how many catches he's had, they know he'll be ready.

"I just try to be where I'm supposed to be and do what I'm supposed to do, and if the ball comes my way make a play," Duckworth said. "Just prepare as a starter and be ready when my number's called."

Healthy or not, that's always been Duckworth's mindset. The soft-spoken receiver takes a business approach to his preparation, and Phillips believes his personality lends itself to making the type of game-changing plays he's converted throughout his career with the Badgers.

"He's very relaxed. He doesn't fit your stereotypical wide receiver personality," Phillips said. "I think he's much more quiet and reserved. He kind of takes care of business and keeps to himself. He's a guy that doesn't show that much emotion, so I think that plays into his advantage in those situations where the pressure is on. He's definitely not jittery. He's been in those situations. He knows what he's doing. He goes out there and does his job."

Although his production over the past four years has been selective, Duckworth certainly doesn't lack talent. Star wideout Jared Abbrederis raved of Duckworth's route running and dependability after Tuesday's practice, and Beatty said he understands the game as well as anyone.

"I call him the crafty vet," Beatty said. "He's one of those guys that just has a knack for understanding where the soft spots are in defenses, understands how to get open, understands how to create separation. He's just like one of those guys that has been in the league for six or eight years and knows the ins and outs of how it works. He doesn't need a lot of reps, but he finds soft spots, and the ball finds him in crucial moments.

"We'd like to get him on the field more, but we count on him when the pressure gets on, there's no doubt."

That seems to be the legacy Duckworth will leave in Madison -- someone who can transform from role player to hero at any moment, a Robert Horry type who always needs to be accounted for in the waning moments of a close game.

Even if his injuries don't subside before season's end, and even if his near-game-winning play against Arizona State was his final out-of-nowhere thriller, he's left an imprint that most players haven't.

"He's already made a lot of big plays for us, and we wouldn't be where we're at the past couple years without him," Abbrederis said. "He's definitely left a mark on UW."

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