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Unlikely heroes steal one for banged-up Badgers

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Bret Bielema critics, you are officially silenced.

What we witnessed Saturday at Kinnick Stadium was a complete and total 31-30 team victory over Iowa that started with the head coach, trickled down to his assistants, continued onto the starters and ended with a third-string running back and a punter.

The play on the field was impressive, but the revelations off the field after Wisconsin's 31-30 win over Iowa were even more noteworthy .

When James White went down with a knee injury in the first half, one had to worry about John Clay carrying the load all by himself. But on the very next play after White went down on a rush for no gain, seldom used third-string running back Montee Ball ran out on the field and took a shovel pass from Scott Tolzien 14 yards to the Iowa seven-yard line on 3rd-and-12.

On the play after that, fullback Bradie Ewing caught a touchdown pass and UW took a 10-6 lead.

Ball's catch and run was the perfect snapshot of what the Badgers were able to do Saturday to grab a win defensive end J.J. Watt said was even bigger than last week's win over then-No. 1 Ohio State.


Ball said after the game that they worked on that play with him all week and it was going to be used whether White got hurt or not. They also worked on a number of plays in practice where Ball was lined up in the slot and worked as a receiver. Talk about being prepared. Ball led the Badgers in receptions Saturday with five catches for 41 yards.

And oh yeah, he can still run the ball. On his game-winning eight-yard touchdown run he slipped a number tackles and seemingly carried a man on his back as he barely stretched the ball over the goal line. That run symbolized the fight Ball has shown while falling on the depth chart and losing playing time.

"To be honest, yeah (I lost confidence) a little bit," Ball said after the game. "I went on a roller coaster ride. My mind was saying I can't do this and I'm telling myself I can. I just kept my head up and just kept fighting and fighting."

Was today's game a confidence builder?

"Yes. I believe so," Ball said with a grin on his face.

While the coaches deserve a ton of credit for how they prepared offensively -- specifically offensive coordinator Paul Chryst who's brillant play calling led to the Badgers putting up 31 points on the best defense in the Big Ten with Nick Toon, Lance Kendricks, James White, Peter Konz and even John Clay missing some or all of Saturday's game -- you could argue it was Wisconsin's special teams preparation that won the game.

Yes, you read that correctly. Special teams won the game for the Wisconsin Badgers.

J.J. Watt's blocked extra point on Iowa's first touchdown of the game ended up being the difference in the game. But the Badgers never would have had a chance to win if Bret Bielema hadn't called for a fake punt on 4th-and-4 from their own 26-yard line with 6:24 left in the game.

Trailing 30-24 at the time, the gamble wasn't just a desperate play called at the last second. Well, it was called at the last second, but only because Iowa put the right personel on the field to call what assistant coach Charlie Partridge had worked on in practice all week with his unit: a Brad Nortman run straight up the middle.

It couldn't have worked better. Nortman gained 17 yards on the play.

"That was something we had seen on film," Bielema said after the game. "With the scheme that we run from a punt standpoint, certain teams are going to defend it differently and we had seen that they had gone with two edge pressures and were covering down. We made that call once I saw them send out the punt return unit. Great execution, great faith."

That it was. And so was the other 4th-and-4 the Badgers successfully converted later on the game-winning drive: a pass to Montee Ball.

On a day where Wisconsin was beat up and probably over-matched on the defensive side of the football, the coaches added a few wrinkles to the game plan and used them as adjustments when they needed it most.

But of course those wrinkles would be meaningless without the execution from a third-string running back and a punter.