Big Ten Leaders preview: Leaders' leaders leading charmed life

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2012 - 2:20 PM

The pieces have fallen into place for Wisconsin to return to the Big Ten title game.

So is it Wisconsin or Hogwarts? Are they Badgers or Sorcerers? Is Bret Bielema a coach or a wizard?

Something otherworldly is going on in the Leaders Division, where a variety of events has combined to clear a path to the Big Ten Championship Game for Wisconsin wider than any hole their SUV-sized linemen have ever crowbarred in a defense.

Maybe it's some higher power's attempt at evening the ledger after the three gut-punches Wisconsin took last season, fourth-quarter lightning bolts by Michigan State and Ohio State in the regular season before Oregon's final blow in the Rose Bowl that spoiled one of the greatest seasons in Camp Randall Stadium's 95-year history. Or a cosmic welcome-wagon housewarming gift for Bielema's six new assistants.

But there must be an explanation for a streak of good fortune -- including division powers Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible for the postseason -- that has the Badgers halfway down the runway toward becoming the first team to represent the Big Ten in Pasadena for three consecutive years in more than three decades (Michigan, 1977-79).

"We've gotten some good news this offseason, obviously," said the 42-year-old Bielema, who in his seventh season is suddenly the Big Ten's second-most senior football coach after Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. "But nothing is guaranteed in a conference this tough."

Ball is back for more

Still, it has been a remarkable year.

First, Montee Ball, off a record-shattering season that included 1,923 rushing yards, 39 touchdowns and a fourth-place finish in Heisman Trophy balloting, shocked NFL talent scouts by pulling out of the draft and choosing to return to Madison for his senior year. He's back with a new name -- it's pronounced Mon-TAY now -- and a renewed mission.

"I'd like to win the Heisman, but that's not the only reason I came back," said the 210-pound tailback, who was advised that he likely would have been drafted in the third round. "We left some things unfinished last year. This team has very high goals, like another Rose Bowl, like going undefeated, and I want to help lead this team."

And the team wants to help him, too. Most coaches don't like to talk about individual awards, but Bielema isn't coy about his ambition for Ball.

"He's going to return as the highest leading vote-getter from the Heisman," Bielema said. "Obviously he's the one up for the Heisman, but I'd love to be a head coach that coaches a Heisman Trophy winner. Our offensive line would love to be an offensive line that blocks for a Heisman Trophy winner, and everybody in our program is going to try to help him win that award."

Introducing another new QB

Including a newcomer to that program. For the second year in a row, the Badgers' gaping hole at quarterback was suddenly filled by a transfer. Last year, Russell Wilson took advantage of an NCAA rule that allows players who already have graduated to transfer without sitting out a year, and the former North Carolina State player enjoyed one of the great seasons by a Badgers quarterback, completing 72 percent of his passes for 3,175 yards, 33 touchdowns and only four interceptions. But what are the odds another talented, experienced starting quarterback could squeeze through that loophole and land in Madison?

Danny O'Brien, fresh off two seasons at Maryland, somehow did. The Minneapolis native, who moved to North Carolina at age 12, threw for 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns as a freshman in 2009, but he was far less effective during his interception-plagued sophomore year, when new Terrapins coach Randy Edsall installed a zone-read scheme that O'Brien couldn't master. Now he is back in a pro-style, work-from-the-pocket setup for which the Badgers say he is perfect.

"It's like he knows our offense already, before we even practice," Ball said last month. "I can't wait to work with him."

O'Brien's out-of-left-field addition to the roster -- he graduated from Maryland in three years, making him eligible to play right away at Wisconsin -- solved a quarterbacking dilemma for Matt Canada. The new Badgers offensive coordinator was facing a decision between senior Curt Phillips, who had been sidelined since 2009 by knee injuries, and redshirt freshman Joel Stave, a walk-on who has never played in a college game. Phillips appeared to have lost arm strength and mobility during his layoff, observers reported, and Stave was understandably erratic. As anticipated, O'Brien was named the starter halfway through fall camp.

"He has been good in all types of situations," Bielema told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in announcing his decision. "And the thing that has kind of intrigued me is his ability to make something happen when it looks like nothing is there."

That's sort of a theme with the Badgers. O'Brien, after all, will throw passes to a receiver, Jared Abbrederis, who has blossomed into a reliable, all-conference-caliber go-to guy, and have his blind side protected by a left tackle, Ricky Wagner, who has turned himself into an Outland Trophy candidate through sheer determination. Both players, by the way, came to Wisconsin as walk-ons; Wagner was originally a tight end. Think things are working out well for the Badgers?

They won't get overconfident

But the biggest stroke of serendipity was applied by the NCAA, which knee-capped Wisconsin's two strongest division rivals with postseason bans. Ohio State must sit out as penance for Jim Tressel's cover-up of the Buckeyes' tattoo-parlor scandal almost two years ago. Penn State will be sidelined for four years as fallout for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

That leaves Wisconsin to compete with three other teams -- Illinois, Indiana and Purdue -- for the Leaders Division's slot in Indianapolis in December. The Badgers' record against those three "rivals" since 2004: 16-1.

See you in Indy, right?

"It's not that simple. Coach will never let us think that way, nor should he," said senior linebacker Mike Taylor, whose 150 tackles led the Big Ten last season. "You have to respect every team in this league, because overconfidence can undo all your hard work. Just look at last season -- we don't feel like we should have lost any of those games. But we blame ourselves. And we're not going to let it happen again."

The Badgers will use magic if they have to.

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