UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Greats of the game give Badgers high marks

There can be no greater testimonial to a defensive player than an endorsement from Chris Spielman, the former Ohio State linebacker and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Who's the Best of the Best in the Big Ten?

Spielman endorsed UW defensive end J.J. Watt.

When asked if Watt reminds him of anyone, Spielman said, "He reminds me of the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year in my eyes. That's what he reminds me of."

Spielman has great respect for Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan. "But J.J. is as good as they come," Spielman pointed out. "And I know he's well-respected around the league."

These comments came before Watt made play after play after play in Wisconsin's convincing win over Northwestern in Saturday's regular-season finale at Camp Randall Stadium.

Watt finished with seven tackles, which included three TFLs, a sack and two forced fumbles. He also had three quarterback hurries. And, to boot, he blocked one: an extra point boot.

Few defensive players have impacted the outcome of a game in so many different ways. Maybe it was appropriate that among the witnesses Saturday was Tim Krumrie, a two-time All-American.

In the early '80s, Krumrie was a dominating nose tackle for the Badgers. The key word would be "nose" because blood would usually be trickling down Krumrie's nose after the first series.

The bridge of Krumrie's nose was always red and raw. Ditto now for Watt, who has followed nicely in the UW playmaking footsteps of O'Brien Schofield, Tom Burke and Tarek Saleh.

Watt has been among the most valuable contributors on defense. What about the offense?

"They're strong in every area on offense," Spielman said, listing the offensive line first. "I think Lance Kendricks is the best tight end in the Big Ten if not all of football.

"Of course, their three running backs are outstanding: Ball, White and Clay. They have excellent speed and skill on the edges and maybe their most valuable player has been Scott Tolzien.

"He has taken care of the football, he has been accurate and he has eliminated mistakes by understanding his strengths and weaknesses."

The Badgers have the reputation of being a physical team. What does that mean to Spielman?

"You know that when you play a team that makes no bones about what they do as far as running the football, they're going to challenge you," he said. "They're saying, 'This is what we're going to do. What are you going to do to stop us?'

"To run the ball that crazy number of times in a row during the second half at Michigan - and there was nothing Michigan could do to stop them - was a unique feat that you don't see very often today in college football. And to get an offensive tackle (Ricky Wagner) to throw a key block on a guy in the secondary epitomizes how strong of a unit they are."

Former UW tailback Billy Marek was the honorary captain for the Northwestern game. Nobody appreciates a run-blocking offensive line more than Marek, the fourth-leading rusher in school history.

"When you look at Wisconsin football, it really hasn't changed much over the years," said Marek, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons (1973-75). "It's smash-mouth football - you keep coming and coming and coming. That's the way we play football here."

What was his impression of the tailback rotation of Montee Ball, James White and John Clay?

"They are so competitive and yet so unselfish as far as how they play together and root for each other during the game," said Marek, who's impressed with how quickly each running back gets up to speed once they enter the game without needing multiple carries to get into a rhythm.

"All three of them read holes very well. If I had one asset, it was staying out of the way and squeezing in-between the holes. All three do that well. But I don't think I'd ever catch White."

The 5-foot-8 Marek broke out into laughter.

"Something you can't teach is the natural ability to find the hole and stay with the blockers," he said, citing Montee Ball's patience and timing in allowing his pulling lineman to set up their blocks.

"Sometimes if you're very fast, you'll outrun your blockers. Other times if you're very big, you'll try to run over people. He falls in the middle and does an exceptional job of reading those blocks."

Based on most projections, the Badgers should stay ahead of Ohio State and Michigan State in the final BCS standings. "I hope these players realize how much they elevate all of us," Marek said.

Spielman believes the Badgers are playing the best football in the Big Ten.

"I picked Ohio State to win (the title) and I thought Wisconsin was going to be Ohio State's biggest challenge and that proved out to be true," Spielman said.

"They'd be even better on defense if Chris Borland was playing. Unfortunately, he's been out. If he comes back next year, he's as good as there is in the Big Ten at linebacker."

Another ringing endorsement, especially coming from Spielman.

"I think it has been frustrating for him," he said of Borland being sidelined, "because he's a competitor and when you sit and you watch that only deepens your hunger to get back on the field.

"But it's incumbent on Bret and his staff to make sure that Borland does not get on the field until he's ready to go because he's that important to the growth and success of that defense."

What about the growth of Bret Bielema as a head coach?

"I've always loved him," Spielman said. "What I like the most about him is that he does what's best for Wisconsin. He doesn't care what anybody else thinks. He brings (to the table) his personality and a little swagger and a confidence in his ability.

"All the coaches in the Big Ten are good coaches. Don't get me wrong. I just think Bret knows who he is, and he knows what he has, and he knows what he wants the identity of his team to be.  And he gets the most out of his players. To me, that's all I ever wanted in a head coach."

Spielman said that he can identify with Bielema's football mentality.

He then pointed to the point-scoring spree against Indiana that netted 83 points.

"I know he was taking a little grief but he's got to worry about Wisconsin does, he can't worry about Indiana," Spielman said. "You cannot tell your players not to play. These kids work their rear ends off and you've got someone running for a touchdown, are you going to have him take a knee?

"If you want it to be like that then go play intramurals, brother, as Dan Hawkins would say. Everybody is a big boy. If Indiana wanted to stop them, then make a tackle. It's pretty simple."

The Badgers have excelled in Big Boy Football.

That has won over Spielman and Marek.

"They're so balanced all-around," Spielman said.

"These guys are a special group," Marek said.