Badgers know how to run a running game

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2011 - 1:40 AM

The Wisconsin Badgers play and recruit for smash-mouth football. They do it so well that new Gophers coach Jerry Kill considers them a blueprint for Minnesota's rebuilding program.


Coach Bret Bielema led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in 2010.

Photo: Morry Gash, Associated Press

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

Running a Big Ten team provides lots of advantages for Jerry Kill, but the new Gophers coach has had to make a certain number of sacrifices, too. For instance, he has had to cut ties with an effective behind-the-scenes recruiter.

Not much choice. Turns out, the guy happens to coach Minnesota's most bitterly despised rival.

"I used to give him names of kids we weren't going to recruit anymore, and I know he got a few of them to Southern Illinois," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, whose last public interaction with a Gophers coach was an angry lecture about running up the score from Tim Brewster at midfield last October. "When we knocked guys off the list at a BCS level, he was grabbing them up for I-AA."

That sort of cooperation is over, but Kill and Bielema hardly seem like competitors planning to wrestle to the death over Paul Bunyan's Axe. They're more like neighbors volunteering to loan each other their chainsaw.

"Jerry and I hit it off the first time we met at a [coaching] clinic -- heck, that was probably back when he was at Pittsburg [Kan.] State" in the early 1990s, Bielema said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I was excited when I heard he was in the mix for Minnesota -- excited for him, because I knew he would make things difficult for me."

Said Kill: "Bret's a good guy and a great coach. We learned a lot just by preparing to play his team. ... He's built his program the way we'd like to do it here -- get in-state kids, develop toughness on the line, and run the ball."

There's not much doubt about the formula anymore. Wisconsin finished the season only 5 rushing yards short of conference leader Illinois, and piled up 48 rushing touchdowns, 13 more than anyone else, to easily lead the Big Ten in scoring. Meanwhile, the defense tied for a league-low nine scores allowed on the ground.

"If controlling the line of scrimmage is ugly football," Bielema jokes, "our goal is to be the homeliest team you've ever seen."

Good line, but his results are all Hollywood.


Bielema has posted winning records in all five of his seasons in Madison, twice finished the season ranked seventh in the nation, and last year took the Badgers to the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than a decade. Now they are the favorites to represent the Leaders Division in the first Big Ten championship game. Even Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, who knows something about sustaining a successful football program, admires what Bielema has accomplished.

"You have to recruit well, of course, but it's more than just signing the best players," Osborne said. "You have to find players that fit, and that's what [Bielema] has done so well. They recruit to their style of football."

This season's Badgers might be the best example yet. Wisconsin lost its leading rusher, John Clay, to the NFL last spring, yet still owns the deepest, most experienced running attack in the Big Ten, with two returning tailbacks who finished among the conference's top-ten rushers and a couple of highly prized newcomers.

Junior Montee Ball, the between-the-tackles bruiser of the bunch, reached the end zone 18 times last season, while sophomore James White averaged 6.7 yards per carry with 14 scores by bursting outside during his first year of college ball. That pair is listed as co-starters, but the Badgers also can call upon redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, perhaps the fastest of the backs, and true freshman Melvin Gordon, probably the most impressive of all the backs in fall camp.

"It's great for the receivers, because the safeties always have their eyes on the line" of scrimmage, anticipating a running play, said senior Nick Toon, Wisconsin's most experienced pass-catcher. "Everyone is always leaning that way."

Fell into their laps

But even the league's best running attack needs a passing threat to keep defenses from loading up at the line, and the graduation of steady-but-rarely-flashy Scott Tolzien loomed as Wisconsin's kryptonite, since returning backup quarterbacks Jon Budmayr (now out because of an elbow injury) and Joe Brennan were wobbly under pressure.

Then the answer "just fell into our laps," Bielema said. "One day I came into the office, and there was a fax on my desk."

The note that June day was from Russell Wilson, an infielder for the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists, a Colorado Rockies' Class A baseball team. Wilson also happened to have 8,545 passing yards and 93 touchdowns rushing and passing at North Carolina State on his résumé, the third-most scores in Wolfpack history.

Baseball wasn't going as well as Wilson hoped -- he hit .228 in 61 games for the Tourists -- and he was itching to use his remaining year of eligibility in college football. Trouble was, when Wilson missed spring practices in order to play baseball, N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien told him the team had moved on and released him from his scholarship.

Since he already had graduated, Wilson isn't required to sit out a season after transferring -- and he knew Wisconsin needed a quarterback.

"He reached out to us," Bielema said. "I knew he was a good football player, but what I really dove into was, what kind of person he is. I don't like to coach prima donnas; I don't like to be around [bad] attitudes. I wanted to make sure he understands we're better as a family than as individuals, so we went to his high school, we reached out to his coaches, we talked to everyone in his circle of trust. And he's really the kind of person we want in our program."

Wilson was so well received by his teammates, he was elected a captain last week as the Badgers prepared for Thursday night's nationally televised opener against UNLV.

"He's a hard worker, and that's what this team is about," Toon said. "He's the perfect fit."

  • related content

  • Leaders Division team capsules

    Tuesday August 30, 2011

    OHIO STATECoach: Luke Fickell, first year2010: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten), won Sugar Bowl over Arkansas 31-26Returning starters: 6 offense, 4...

  • Chart: Wisconsin's formula for success

    Monday August 29, 2011

    WISCONSIN'S FORMULA FOR SUCCESSUnder coach Bret Bielema, who is starting his sixth season, Wisconsin has increasingly relied on its ground...

  • Breakout players: Five Big Ten players to watch

    Tuesday August 30, 2011

    Chart: Players to watch

  • Five teams going nowhere: Miami and ...

    Tuesday August 30, 2011

    IN A DECLINEMiami (Fla.): The Hurricanes still were enjoying that new-coach optimism with Al Golden when Yahoo! published a devastating...

  • Northwestern plus four: Five teams to watch

    Tuesday August 30, 2011

    ON THE RISENorthwestern: Pat Fitzgerald has taken the Wildcats to three consecutive bowl games, and this year's squad should be...

  • Heisman watch: preseason edition

    Tuesday August 30, 2011

    Denard RobinsonQB, MichiganIf the Big Ten's Player of the Year repeats his astonishing success as a scrambler -- he led...

  • Five Big Ten story lines

    Tuesday August 30, 2011

    FIVE STORY LINES1. No matter how well or poorly Ohio State plays, the unwanted focus in November will be on...

  • Wisconsin running back James White


    Wisconsin Badgers: The team's biggest question mark was at QB -- until Russell Wilson transferred in.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Atlanta 6 FINAL
Detroit 4
Philadelphia 3 FINAL
Houston 6
St. Louis 4 FINAL
Miami 1
Baltimore 3 FINAL
Tampa Bay 2
NY Yankees 2 FINAL
Pittsburgh 1
Chicago Cubs 6 FINAL
San Francisco 8
Los Angeles 6 FINAL
Chicago WSox 1
San Diego 4 FINAL
Seattle 9
Cleveland 9 FINAL
Cincinnati 3
Milwaukee 2 FINAL
LA Angels 3
Oakland 2 FINAL
Chicago Cubs 2
Texas 4 FINAL
Kansas City 5
Colorado 3 FINAL
Arizona 4
Washington 5
Boston 8 FINAL
Minnesota 9
Toronto 0 FINAL
Baltimore 5
Oklahoma City 105 FINAL
Chicago 108
Dallas 75 FINAL
Portland 94
Calgary 4 FINAL(SO)
Boston 3
St. Louis 1 FINAL
Philadelphia 3
Minnesota 2 FINAL
Washington 1
Toronto 2 FINAL
Tampa Bay 4
Dallas 4 FINAL(SO)
Florida 3
NY Islanders 4 FINAL
Nashville 3
Vancouver 2 FINAL(SO)
Arizona 3
Montreal 3 FINAL(SO)
Los Angeles 4
Morgan State 76 FINAL
MD-Eastern Shore 89
Niagara 54 FINAL
Siena 71
Holy Cross 83 FINAL
Bucknell 90
Western Ky 88 FINAL
Charlotte 84
Navy 62 FINAL
Colgate 72
Temple 70 FINAL
East Carolina 56
Fla Atlantic 62
Boston Univ 64 FINAL
Lafayette 89
American Univ 68 FINAL
Lehigh 62
Wisconsin 76 FINAL
Minnesota 63
Fairfield 33 FINAL
Saint Peters 63
Arkansas 78 FINAL
South Carolina 74
Morehead State 76 FINAL
UT Martin 65
USC Upstate 63 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 62
Lipscomb 57 FINAL
North Florida 71
Southern Ill 55 FINAL
Missouri State 48
Texas State 64 FINAL
Appalachian St 67
SC State 62 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 72
Delaware State 104 FINAL
Coppin State 92
Middle Tennessee 54 FINAL
FIU 59
Texas-Arlington 64 FINAL
Ga Southern 76
Norfolk State 80 FINAL
Hampton 69
NC Central 69
Savannah State 57 FINAL
Florida A&M 64
Southern Miss 61 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 72
Marshall 50 FINAL
Old Dominion 67
Rice 76 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 74
South Alabama 81 FINAL
Arkansas State 76
Alabama State 78 FINAL
Grambling St 46
Alabama A&M 54 FINAL
Jackson State 72
Sam Houston St 67 FINAL
Lamar 61
Georgia State 58 FINAL
ULM 50
Central Arkansas 70 FINAL
Nicholls 77
Portland State 51 FINAL
Northern Ariz 58
Southern U 77 FINAL
Prairie View 73
Alcorn State 73 FINAL
Texas Southern 94
Houston Baptist 72 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 85
Ark-Little Rock 69 FINAL
Louisiana 75
SE Louisiana 79 FINAL
New Orleans 85
California 60 FINAL
Arizona 99
Memphis 54 FINAL
Connecticut 53
VA Commonwealth 55 FINAL
Davidson 82
Ark-Pine Bluff 0 Postponed
Miss Valley St 0
Sacramento St 65 FINAL
Southern Utah 69
Northwestern St 66 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 92
North Texas 60 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 83
Colorado 64 FINAL
Washington 47
Idaho 63 FINAL
Weber State 74
Abilene Christian 52 FINAL
Incarnate Word 64
Eastern Wash 85 FINAL
Idaho State 81
Marist 80 FINAL
Quinnipiac 74
Eastern Ill 64 FINAL
Belmont 97
Bradley 52 FINAL
Drake 50
Cal State Fullerton 62 FINAL
UC Irvine 68
CS-Northridge 58 FINAL
Long Beach State 69
UC Riverside 59 FINAL
UC Davis 61
Stanford 62 FINAL
Arizona State 67
Utah 67 FINAL
Washington St 59
Monmouth 68 FINAL
Canisius 56
Wake Forest 85 FINAL
(22) Syracuse 79
Saint Louis 65 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 58
Saint Peters 62 FINAL
Rider 54
UNC-Asheville 51 FINAL
Liberty 59
UNC Greensboro 44 FINAL
(17) Chattanooga 78
Michigan State 69 FINAL
Michigan 49
Arkansas 72 FINAL
Ole Miss 61
Manhattan 51 FINAL
Niagara 57
Massachusetts 63 FINAL
Richmond 67
Virginia 52 FINAL
Miami-Florida 62
Jacksonville St 45 FINAL
Belmont 55
Morgan State 65 FINAL
MD-Eastern Shore 50
Campbell 65 FINAL
Winthrop 52
Furman 65 FINAL
Samford 54
Oregon 64 FINAL
Washington St 66
Indiana 52 FINAL
(23) Rutgers 63
Pepperdine 67 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 68
Auburn 47 FINAL
(18) Texas A&M 57
Morehead St 66 FINAL
Tennessee St 81
George Mason 43 FINAL
Saint Josephs 71
Western Carolina 53 FINAL
East Tenn St 73
Arizona 62 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 79
Texas State 55 FINAL
Appalachian St 61
TX-Arlington 66 FINAL
Georgia Southern 41
SC State 57 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 56
Delaware State 51 FINAL
Coppin State 80
Portland 58 FINAL
Santa Clara 66
Norfolk State 49 FINAL
Hampton 64
Florida Atlantic 56 FINAL
UAB 59
NC Central 46
Savannah State 72 FINAL
Florida A&M 51
Virginia Tech 51 FINAL
Pittsburgh 45
Central Arkansas 43 FINAL
Nicholls 53
Houston Baptist 48 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 73
Gardner-Webb 70 FINAL
Radford 56
Georgia 75 FINAL
Missouri 64
Old Dominion 67 FINAL
Marshall 55
Ark-Little Rock 68 FINAL
Louisiana 66
South Alabama 60 FINAL
Arkansas State 70
Georgia State 66 FINAL
ULM 61
Sam Houston St 73 FINAL
Lamar 92
SE Louisiana 75 FINAL
New Orleans 84
Northwestern St 45 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 56
Alabama A&M 58 FINAL
Jackson State 66
Alabama State 68 FINAL
Grambling 62
Southern U 78 FINAL
Prairie View 50
Alcorn State 55 FINAL
Texas Southern 73
Ark-Pine Bluff 0 Postponed
Miss Valley St 0
Wofford 54 FINAL
Mercer 75
Abilene Christian 72 FINAL
Incarnate Word 62
La Salle 60 FINAL
Rhode Island 65
Illinois 71 FINAL
Nebraska 86
TX-San Antonio 60 FINAL
Rice 49
Valparaiso 55 FINAL
Oakland 70
Missouri State 65 FINAL
Indiana State 56
Georgia Tech 64 FINAL
(15) North Carolina 84
Charlotte 72 FINAL
Western Ky 80
Texas-El Paso 69 FINAL
North Texas 61
Wichita State 77 FINAL
Evansville 63
Loyola-Chicago 64 FINAL
Northern Iowa 69
Bradley 70 FINAL
Drake 86
Presbyterian 62 FINAL
High Point 75
Vanderbilt 61 FINAL
(12) Kentucky 67
Colorado 75 FINAL
USC 63
San Francisco 74 FINAL
Pacific 64
Idaho State 58 FINAL
Eastern Washington 62
Weber State 42 FINAL
Idaho 71
Purdue 78 FINAL
Minnesota 82
Cal-Irvine 54 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 66
Long Beach St 60 FINAL
CS-Northridge 77
Hawaii 60 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 36
UC Davis 56 FINAL
UC-Riverside 61
Northern Ariz 79 FINAL
Portland State 62
Southern Utah 73 FINAL
Sacramento St 107
Utah 64 FINAL
Washington 75
St Marys-CA 64
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Who is the best center on a Twin Cities sports team?

Weekly Question