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The inside look at the Wisconsin football program is back for another round as the Badgers prepare for the 2014 Capital One Bowl. Check out Episode 1 of "The Camp: Orlando" with exclusive inside access to practice.
It is interesting how quickly a team's perception can change based on one bad game.
Interesting, and at times inaccurate.
For weeks, as the Badgers football team was rolling along, more and more national observers were talking about how Gary Andersen's squad was underrated. The Arizona State game was incomplete.
With the Badgers on the brink of the top 14 in the BCS standings, at least some media members were projecting Wisconsin to play in the Orange Bowl.
Then last Saturday happened.
Suddenly, at least for some, the image has changed. Be it a talk show host or a national columnist or two, much of the love for the Badgers has faded.
So goes life in the Big Ten. This week the debate continues whether Ohio State is worthy of its No. 2 ranking. Yes it is undefeated, but critics point to its poor non-conference schedule and a league that remains viewed as weak.
Suddenly, the Buckeyes' win against Wisconsin loses some juice. How can OSU be ranked ahead of a one-loss SEC team? On and on it goes.
While Penn State deserves a ton of credit for coming to Camp Randall and dumping a bucket of cold water on the Badgers' Senior Day, let us not forget that UW has had a very good season.
Yes, the loss to the Nittany Lions will cost Wisconsin a chance at a BCS at-large bid, but take a look at the other two setbacks. We know what is on the line for Ohio State, but it is worth mentioning that Arizona State will be hosting the Pac-12 title game this weekend against Stanford.
While the officials botched the ending of the UW-ASU game in Tempe, it is worth noting that the Sun Devils are having a terrific season, and they are one win away from playing in the Rose Bowl Game for the first time since 1997.
To me, what is happening here is the classic case of an old saying: You are never as good as people say you are, nor are you ever as bad.
Was I surprised at last weekend's outcome? Yes, very much so. The Badgers defense had been in shutdown mode for several weeks, while the offense was taking care of its business. Penn State had just lost on its Senior Day and had yet to win a road game in the Big Ten.
The script called for another convincing victory for the home team, but PSU played one of its best games of the season, while the Badgers played their worst.
Sometimes it is just that simple. It can happen in any sport at any level. In this case it stinks, but it is reality.
As someone who has lived in Big Ten Country his entire life, I will admit to being sick and tired of the verbal pounding this league has had to absorb.
There is one sure way to stop it. Win the big bowl games.
I can tell you how I believe the Big Ten is better than many believe. I really do believe that. However, the image can only change through better postseason results.
Assuming the Badgers are headed for either Orlando or Tampa, they will play a highly-regarded SEC team. Ohio State and Michigan State will be in big-stage bowl games -- for OSU, maybe the biggest of them all.
Win those games, and the perception will begin to change.
To this observer, the Big Ten is improving. Hopefully in the next few weeks this conference will make a loud statement that can be heard nationwide.
After three seasons as a backup, which included a pair of position switches, and playing on special teams, LB Conor O'Neill earned the opportunity to start this season as a senior. He hasn't disappointed and ranks fourth on the Badgers in tackles (39) and is tied for fourth in both tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2.0). He has helped the Wisconsin defense to a No. 6 national ranking, allowing only 278.5 yards per game, including only 99.1 yards per game on the ground, which ranks No. 7 in the country. O'Neill and his 25 fellow seniors will play their final game at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.
What clicked for you during spring practice that put you in a position to start?
"I realized that time was running out for me very quickly. To have a new coaching staff and have a new scheme, I felt it was the best time for me to take advantage of the opportunity in front of me as a senior and get some playing time. I also knew that I had to work hard to make it a reality. The new 3-4 scheme fits my playing style more than the previous 4-3 did. I feel like I am able to be a bit more free (in the defense) and able to run to the ball more."
What has it meant to you to get the chance to start as a senior?
"As much as I would have liked to play as an underclassmen, to finish the way I have as a senior has been a dream come true. To earn the starting job, to be able to play as much as I have, to be a part of this class and be a part of something special like our defense has been this season, it means a lot to me."
What has it been like to be a part of the defense's success this season?
"It has been awesome. People doubted us coming in to fall camp, and to see our guys grow on the back end and in the front seven, and to see how we've bonded to become a dominant defense, has been truly unbelievable."
This senior class has been one of the most successful in school history, what has it meant to you to be a part of that?
"We are a bunch of guys that, four or five years ago, came in and knew that we had to work. That was shown to us by the seniors when we got here and I hope that, when we leave, that is what we will instill in the younger guys -- that this is a program where you have to work every single day. That shows in the results that we have had on the field. To be a part of all of these guys and be a part of something special has meant a lot."
What type of relationships has this senior class developed?
"Five years ago we all came in and had the goal to be a great class and I think that we have done that. All of us can say that we've built lifelong relationships among all of us. We know that five or 10 years down the road, when we have reunions and stuff, and even in the month-to-month and week-to-week, we'll keep in touch with each other. I definitely feel like we've built friendships for a lifetime."
What is the favorite memory from your Badgers career?
"This year and just having the opportunity to start. We've also had the Rose Bowls, the Big Ten championships and taking down a No. 1 (Ohio State) team. Even just the highs and lows of the journey has made for an awesome ride. But, to end it like this, has been awesome. It has been unbelievable."
What will you miss most about playing at Wisconsin?
"Just being around the guys. This is an awesome team with the relationships, the camaraderie and the brotherly love that we have for each other. I feel like we have guys that will go to war for each other and take bullets for each other, just because of all of the things that we have been through. We also have the greatest fans in the world, there is no doubt about that. I am definitely going to miss that and am just going to miss being around the guys a lot."
- Ryan Evans
Other than to say it has been warm and humid here in Mexico this week, I will avoid any further weather details as Bo Ryan's basketball team as it makes its way back home after playing in the Cancun Challenge.
Tropical conditions aside, the competition continues to be serious for the Badgers, with more of the same on the horizon next week. After returning to Madison, the Badgers will hit the road next Wednesday to play Virginia in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Three days later, Marquette comes to the Kohl Center.
Not exactly Cupcake City for this group.
I have to say I am eager to get home -- cold weather and all -- as the Badgers football team prepares for its home finale against Penn State.
While there will be no Big Ten championship game for this year's team, there is much at stake this Saturday. The Badgers are vying to go unbeaten at home for the third time in four years. A 10th win would make it four years out of five that Wisconsin has hit double digits in victories. The seniors are looking for a 24th conference win, which would be the most in a four-year span.
Talk about consistency. That defines this senior class. A low-maintenance group that wins and wins the right way. Good students. Leaders on the field. Leaders in the community.
Not a bad way to represent your university.
As always, emotions will run high before, during and after Saturday's game. It is always interesting to talk to players before that last home appearance. They realize the clock is ticking, but you get the impression some of them would love to call a timeout.
"I don't really want to think about it," said linebacker Ethan Armstrong. "I'm still in the denial stage. Maybe I will figure out a way to have one more year."
Like many on this team, it has been a wild ride for Armstrong, who has battled through numerous injuries to carve out an excellent college career. Not that he has taken a ton of time to think about it.
"I'll probably appreciate it when I'm old, fat and retired," Armstrong said with a smile.
Coming off one of the coldest games in Wisconsin football history, there is at least one player who is rooting for Old Man Winter to make another appearance.
"I've been telling guys that I would be happy if it snowed for our last game," said Conor O'Neill of Delray Beach, Fla. Yeah, that is correct -- a Florida native wants snow this Saturday.
"I think it would be fitting for our senior class. We haven't played in a real snow game."
For the record, the last time I can remember a measureable snowfall for UW football was the 1994 spring game. The players started having snowball fights during the game. But let Conor have his dream, OK?
Snow or no snow. Bitter cold or relatively mild, it is another huge game for the Badgers. Senior Day alone makes it big, but with the home team still jockeying for position in the BCS standings, it is one more chance to make an impression on the voters.
Those folks should be impressed with what they have seen the last two months. It is a hungry team that is winning in dominant fashion.
"It starts with the guys in the locker room," said Armstrong. "They expect to be great, and they demand that of themselves and of this team. The coaching staff does as well. Of themselves and of this team."
Quarterback Curt Phillips agrees. He has appeared in just two games this season, but Phillips is as respected as anyone in the program. And he has nothing but respect for what he has seen in the last year.
"Coach Andersen and his staff, and the spark they provided," Phillips said. "Coach Alvarez holding down the fort with everything he did last year to coach us in the Rose Bowl. It is special."
So is this senior class. Winners in every way. I look forward to seeing them play in front of the home crowd one more time.
Freshmen don't often make as immediate an impact as CB Sojourn Shelton has for the Badgers this season. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native is the first freshman to start at corner for Wisconsin since former first team All-Big Ten selection Scott Starks did so in 2001. He is tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions this season with four to go along with 27 tackles. His early success has many believing Shelton can follow in the steps of Wisconsin cornerback legends like Starks and Thorpe Award winner Jamar Fletcher.
Did you expect to start right away as a true freshman?
"I didn't. I saw my role as someone who filled in, but my personal goal was to be starting by mid-season. I didn't see myself as starting the whole season as a true freshman. It's definitely surprising, but it's something that I've been working for since spring. The guys have helped me prepare for this role and I think it has gone pretty well so far."
What was the most difficult part of the transition from high school to college?
"The details of it. In high school there weren't that many details. You could just go out there, get the call and play. In college there are a lot more details. You have to know your role and your assignments in every possible situation. You have to make calls as a corner, as well, which you never do in high school. As a corner, you have to make calls to the defense to alert them that something is up."
Did enrolling early and participating in spring practice help you?
"It helped a lot. The biggest thing that it helped was that it allowed me to gain weight. I knew that I could play once I got around the guys in the secondary and learned from Coach (Ben) Strickland, it was just a matter of if I was going to be able to put on the necessary weight. I think that's the biggest thing that coming in early helped me with. It taught me how to go about things in the weight room, how to eat the right way and put on as much weight as I could."
Which upperclassmen have you learned the most from?
"All of them. So many of these guys took me under their wing. Dez (Southward) did and James White has, too. James has looked out for me so much and been like a big brother to me. We're from the same city (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) and we knew each other before I came here. When we went home for the summer we went together and I felt like a little brother to him in the airport. He was leading the way. A lot of guys have taken me under their wing, but James has been there every step of the way for me. He's been my support system. I know that if anything goes wrong or if I need to talk about something I can give him a call and he'll lead me in the right direction."
You got the chance to talk to Jamar Fletcher earlier this season, what did you take away from that conversation?
"To be able to talk to somebody who won a Thorpe Award, that's a great opportunity. One day, hopefully and God-willing, I can be in that position. Talking to him was great. I got a chance to hear his story and how he played, which was helpful because I resemble him a lot being a small corner. Being around somebody who has done it, who has played at the next level and been successful here at UW, it was a great experience. Hopefully I get the chance to run into him again."
Coming from Florida, what made Wisconsin the right choice for you?
"The family-like environment. We're all a big family and that's the best part. It has made the transition coming from somewhere so far away so easy. The guys all take you under their wings and make sure that you're fine and make sure everything is going OK. It has been a blessing for me to come here and I'm happy with the decision I've made. I wouldn't take it back for anything."
How much did you know about the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry before this season?
"I didn't know a lot, to be honest. I grew up on the Florida State-Miami rivalry. That's the rivalry that I knew the most about. The minute I touched down and walked around this facility, though, I learned about it pretty quick. I saw the emphasis on keeping the Axe here, learned about the great moments in the rivalry and the hatred between the teams, and I'm ready to see the excitement firsthand, especially going on the road. Going to Minnesota, with both of us 8-2, I'm ready to be in that hostile environment and participate in the first of the many games I'll be playing in."
- Ryan Evans
OK, how many of you had Wisconsin holding Indiana to 3 points last Saturday? I would guess very few, if any, expected such a shutdown performance. After all, going into the weekend, the Hoosiers had scored at least 28 points in 10 straight games.
So much for that streak.
Through ten games this season, Wisconsin has held half of its opponents without a touchdown. No matter the era, that is an impressive stat. In this day of spread-you-out, fast football, keeping five opponents out of the end zone is borderline mind-boggling.
As the Badgers get ready to face Minnesota in the annual Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe, they know another big-boy effort is needed in all phases.
On multiple occasions, I have written and talked about the rivalry, and how much fun it is to watch every year. This time around is even better. Why? Because the Gophers are good, and the stakes are high for both programs.
While the Badgers continue a slow climb up the BCS standings (UW is 19th this week), Minnesota checks in at No. 25. Both teams are 8-2, and both teams are rolling. The Gophers have won four straight, while the Badgers have won five in a row.
Rivalry aside, how can you not appreciate what the Gophers are accomplishing as head coach Jerry Kill works to get his health back in order? There can be very little argument that to this point in the season, Minnesota has been the league's most pleasant surprise.
While not such a surprise, the Badgers deserve a ton of credit themselves. They have managed to overcome two tough losses in September. Since then, they have done nothing but win in convincing fashion. The Badgers are playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten, and to date, continue to state a case -- on the field, and not through the media -- why they should be ranked higher than 19th.
By the way, if you are going to TCF Bank Stadium, bundle up. The forecast for this Saturday calls for a game-time temperature of about 20 degrees, which would be in the top five -- or perhaps bottom five -- coldest temps at kickoff in UW football history.
* * * *
Part of what makes watching sports so enjoyable is we never know for sure what is going to happen. In the last week, Badgers football and basketball fans have witnessed history.
First, it was James White's 93-yard touchdown run against Indiana. It is the longest run from scrimmage in program history.
Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, Frank Kaminsky's 43 point effort against North Dakota set a UW single game record. Talk about efficiency -- Kaminsky needed just 19 shots. He made 16, including for 6-for-6 from 3-point range.
North Dakota's Troy Huff wasn't too bad, either. The former Brookfield Central standout dropped in 37 points. Both Huff and Kaminsky did their damage in just 28 minutes of playing time.
It was an entertaining night in what has been a fun start for Bo Ryan's team. An early-season storyline of different players stepping up is continuing. Kaminsky's historic night followed his critical contributions in the three-point victory against the Phoenix, when he scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked four shots.
In the last two games, Bronson Koenig 's minutes have picked up, and he is playing well. At Green Bay, Koenig scored seven points and, on Tuesday, added five more.
Yes, this group wants to be better defensively, but the Badgers have faced good teams and some special individual players. So far, so good as Wisconsin's busy stretch of non-conference games continues.
Redshirt freshman Nate Hammon has moved around a lot in his football career. A star quarterback at Milton (Wis.) High School, he moved to receiver his first year at Wisconsin before switching to safety prior to this season. The move is paying dividends, though, as Hammon -- who has 15 tackles and a sack this season -- has quickly become a stalwart in the Badgers' 3-4 defense and made his first career start last weekend against BYU.
What has been the most difficult part of transitioning from offense to defense?
"Tackling has definitely been the biggest thing. Growing up not tackling much and then getting thrown in to tackling in college football takes a lot of reps. You can do all the tackling drills you want, but until you actually get thrown out into a game situation you can't truly get the hang of it."
What have been the keys to your successful transition?
"I'm trying to be more confident and less timid. In the spring I was really timid and, as a result, missed a lot of tackles. I wasn't as physical as I needed to be and was thinking about everything way too much. I had to make everything a lot more natural, become more physical and play with more anger, as Coach (Bill) Busch would say."
Did you expect to be seeing the field this much so early in your career?
"No. After being a receiver last year, I didn't think I would see the field much. I even told my parents this year that if I even made the travel squad I'd be happy. I was just going to keep working and keep grinding. My initial goal was to make special teams, and I did that, so then I set the goal to see the field on defense. I learned from Dez (Southward), Mike (Caputo) and (Michael) Trotter and tried to work my way up."
You were used in single coverage assignments against BYU. Is that a role you welcome?
"I'm definitely comfortable doing that. I've been taking a lot of coaching from Coach Busch. Last week was the first time that I've ever gone against receivers, so that was a big change. It's a little bit harder because you're matching up with smaller and shiftier players and, if they get by you, it's harder to catch up compared to covering tight ends."
What have you shown the coaches that has you rapidly moving up the depth chart?
"I honestly don't know (laughs). I try my hardest to show what I can do in practice. Coach Busch likes having taller, longer-armed people covering tight ends, so I think my ability to go one on one against tight ends helped. That was my initial role and, from there, they are giving me bigger and bigger roles in the defense. I embrace anything they ask me to do each week. I'm just blessed to be seeing the field so much this early in my career."
How interchangeable are the OLBs and DBs in the 3-4 defense?
"You've seen Caputo do it and even I have done it a couple times. It's pretty interchangeable. DBs can move down in this defense and, compared to DEs, can play one on one and cover tight ends and slot receivers. It's pretty nice."
- Ryan Evans