Week by week, Bret Bielema's press conferences have provided a stark reminder as to how far Wisconsin has come this season.
For instance, when hearing the Badgers' head coach gripe* about Mike Taylor not being named one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award (top linebacker), the Week 2 loss at Oregon State and subsequent firing of Mike Markuson seem like a year ago. Same goes for the identification of the team's star running back, who has apparently eschewed "Monteé" as his first name in favor of the "Montee" we've all become so familiar with.
*Bielema does, by the way, have a legitimate argument for Taylor's inclusion on the Butkus Award watchlist. Four other Big Ten linebackers were named semifinalists, despite the fact Taylor is second in the conference in tackles (84) and first in tackles for loss (10). Bielema said he will make an "inquiry" into Taylor being overlooked.
"Our guys aren't into awards and all that jazz, but that's pretty significant," Bielema said. "I can't believe that that would happen. But it is what it is."
So earlier Monday afternoon, Bielema took his seat behind the microphone and spent 25 or so minutes extolling the promise of a team that suddenly looks as likely as any to reach the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin is remarkably healthy (though left tackle Ricky Wagner still may miss Saturday's game), while its offense continues to round into shape. Defensively, the Badgers forced two more interceptions against Minnesota, continuing to boost a total that still ranks in the bottom fourth of the conference.
Individually, the following players earned weekly MVP honors and garnered most of Bielema's praise.
|OFFENSE||RB Montee Ball, TE Jacob Pedersen||Ball: 24 carries, 166 yards, 2 TDs; Pedersen: 1 catch, 11 yards|
|DEFENSE||LB Mike Taylor, Devin Smith||Taylor: 12 tackles (1 for loss); Smith: 4 tackles, 1 interception|
|SPECIAL TEAMS||K Kyle French||33-yd FG; 5 kickoffs, 318 yards, 3 touchbacks|
- Sophomore cornerback Devin Gaulden is out for the season with an ACL injury that is at least a partial tear. The Badgers will be able to give Gaulden a medical redshirt, so he will retain three more years of eligibility.
- As mentioned above, Wagner's status is unknown as of now. The whole week is still ahead of us, though Bielema, in a brief sentence, didn't sound optimistic.
- Defensive end Tyler Dippel reaggravated his shoulder injury vs. Minnesota, though he is expected to practice Tuesday and Bielema thinks he'll "feel a lot better than he was last week." Good news, I guess.
- It didn't take Bielema long to address the fact that Saturday's MSU game is the first in Madison since 2009. Obviously last year, Wisconsin felt the brunt of the Hail Mary Heartbreak in East Lansing before getting revenge in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
"[The games are] not good on the heart, but great environments. I don't know how many times I heard last year, ‘If you didn't care who won those games, they were really fun games to watch.'
"From that standpoint, they were fun. But it really always gets down to a couple of key plays offensively that go for scores. Special teams has been a factor, really, positively or negatively for us in every game. You play Michigan State, you've always got to be on the unexpected, whethe it be fake opportunities in the special teams arena or blocks on their punts. We've really got to be on top of our toes in every expect."
- Yes, Montee Ball is back to "Mon-tee." Apparently Ball's recent resurgence -- playing like the Ball of old, I guess -- played a part. The senior running back has rushed for 529 yards (7.35 per carry) and seven touchdowns over his last three games. Bielema, however, said he for one "didn't want to go public" with the name (re)change.
"I was riding back on the plane from Purdue and a couple of my coaches told me that everybody on the sideline ws saying, ‘Hey, Monteé gone but Montee's back.' I think Montee just has done some things differently. He'd be the first to tell you he's done some things away from the field. I know he's come in and worked with our developmental group at 6 a.m. during the course of the week just to get back to the basics.
"Just on the mental side of it, you really start to see him getting some of those signature broken-tackles that you've seen him where he side-steps a guy or runs through a guy."
- On White's resurgence -- 341 yards (9.22 per carry), four touchdowns over the last three games:
"If Montee wants to remain the No. 1 running back, James is doing some nice things. He doesn't need to look over his shoulder that much, but I'm just saying I think there's a competitive nature in those two that really brings out the bbest in one another and it's really fun to watch that stuff happen."
- One more on White, after Bielema spent a while extolling the running back's "all business" attitude:
"I've said this to my staff at different times, I really thought that when James came on and did what he did his freshman year, I thought during my coaching tenure, he'd be my first Heisman Trophy candidate."
- Bielema praised quarterback Joel Stave's effort (7-for-15, 106 yards), noting Wisconsin's receivers dropped three touchdown balls that could've prompted people to "write great things about Joel." Stave is sure to face heavy pressure from Michigan State's talented defense, and Bielema said the redshirt freshman will have to do a better job of getting rid of the ball quickly.
"The good news is Joel has been a guy that's now been through some situations. Everybody's been bringing pressure on us."
- Bielema had an interesting perspective on the tradeoff presented by the scheduling quirks of the Big Ten's two-division set-up. Wisconsin will not face Michigan State for another four years after Saturday.
"On the flipside of it, you've got some really neat things popping within. That's the way I kind of spin it. I look at is every year, we get a chance to play Penn State and Ohio State. For us, recruiting-wise, that's very, very important. We do our fair share of recruiting in Michigan, but really, probably, traditionally do more recruiting against Ohio State and Penn State nationally than Michigan State itself."
- On Pedersen, who seems to be handling the duality of his roles (receiving and blocking) better as the undisputed No. 1 tight end:
"He's bigger, he's faster, he's more physical than he was a year ago. It's really showing up in some of the people he's got to block this week, being a critical came because they've got some big boys up front. We ask those sometimes to handle guys that may be 30, 40 pounds heavier than them. He's been able to hold his own and look really good doing it."