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.

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

Photo: Morry Gash, Associated Press

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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.

Well-grounded

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."

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