Sept. 9, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Miles from home, James White and Conor O’Neill were standing a few feet apart while answering questions after Wisconsin’s 48-0 win over Tennessee Tech.
White and O’Neill are Floridians and alums of St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale. As such, they’ve experienced the highs and lows as teammates for the last eight seasons.
Both were on a high Saturday.
For the 11th time in his 41-game career, White rushed for 100 or more yards and the Badgers are still undefeated in those games. He also scored on a 2-yard run, his 34th career rushing touchdown.
For the first time in his 42-game career, O’Neill got the starting assignment at linebacker, and he responded by leading the defense with nine tackles (five solo), including 1.5 tackles for loss.
White was happy for O’Neill, and O’Neill was happy for White. Their friendship dates back to 2006 when O’Neill was a sophomore and White was a freshman on the St. Thomas Aquinas varsity.
“He (O’Neill) probably should have been on the field a lot more here,” White said. “But he has gotten his opportunity and he’s making the most of it now, and he’ll continue to have success.”
O’Neill returned the compliment. “Just to see the way he has handled himself and the way he has grown both as a football player and a person, I’m really proud of James,” he said, “and Dez.”
Dez is Dez Southward, who anchors the UW secondary. Southward is also a product of the Aquinas program, though he was a late bloomer since his early focus was on basketball, not football.
“I’m proud of what we’ve all done,” said O’Neill, mentioning the adversity each has faced, and overcome. “For me to finally get that start, it truly means a lot and it was all definitely worth it.”
Throughout training camp, O’Neill, a fifth-year senior from Delray, Fla., and Derek Landisch, a junior from Nashotah, Wis., battled to be the starting inside Rover linebacker alongside of Chris Borland.
Although Landisch got the start in the opener against UMass, O’Neill stayed ready.
“They (the coaches) told us both that we were going to be playing in a lot of games,” O’Neill said. “It’s something where I prided myself on preparing like I was going to be starting.”
|“I’m proud of what we’ve all done,” O'Neill said of the Aquinas contingent. “For me to finally get that start, it truly means a lot and it was all definitely worth it.”
It paid off for O’Neill when Landisch was injured and sidelined for the Tennessee Tech game. “Things happen for a reason, this week happened and I’m thankful for the opportunity,” O’Neill said.
It was not like O’Neill was totally foreign to game conditions. After all, he has lettered in each of the past three seasons, during which he has been a valuable back-up and contributor on special teams.
But he did have a bit of a nervous stomach before Saturday’s opening kickoff at Camp Randall Stadium. “There were jitters coming out for that first play,” he conceded.
But they didn’t last long; not after UW cornerback Darius Hillary put his helmet on the football and jarred it loose from Tech running back Stephen Bush. The fumble was recovered by Southward.
“One play and we’re off the field,” said O’Neill, grinning.
That was a tone-setter for a Wisconsin defense that has now blanked back-to-back opponents for the first time since 1958. For historical perspective, a Chryst was playing for the Badgers back then.
Not Paul Chryst, the former UW offensive coordinator and Pitt head coach, but his dad, George Chryst, a guard-linebacker, who received the game ball after a 20-0 win at Miami (Fla.) in the ’58 opener.
“It’s hard to shut people out,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, knowing the schedule will toughen up. “I’m proud of the kids; they should be excited about that … it’s very difficult to get done.”
Given a new defensive scheme, the preparation for both games has been good, Andersen said.
“We don’t want to let anyone score on us,” O’Neill pointed out.
Following Saturday’s game, a local film crew peppered O’Neill with the requisite questions that anyone would ask of a first-time starter, particularly one who had just been so productive.
“To be able to say on my first start, I had a good game,” O’Neill said, “I’m happy.”
Several times, he simply replied, “I wanted to make my teammates proud.”
O’Neill was then asked, “Where do you go from here?”
Without blinking, he said, “Arizona.”
O’Neill didn’t have to say anything more, and he didn’t.
• • • •
|After throwing a second-quarter interception, Stave completed 13 straight passes, including a 10-for-10 effort on UW's two-minute drill at the end of the first half.
“When we’re backed up,” UW quarterback Joel Stave was saying, “we have to make sure we have a couple of good plays called just to get us out of there. I thought the play-calling was great.”
With 1 minute and 49 seconds left in the first half, the Badgers had the ball on their own 6-yard line after a Kenzel Doe punt return had been called back because of a penalty.
On the first play, Stave completed a 21-yard pass to tight Jacob Pedersen.
“That was very important,” White said. “We were backed up and we weren’t going to start the two-minute drill unless we got a good play.”
Added Stave, “From there, we were just rolling.”
There were completions of 8 yards to Jordan Fredrick, 6 yards to Pedersen, 7 yards to Jared Abbrederis, 8 yards to White, 4 yards to Abbrederis and 14 yards to White before using the first timeout.
The Badgers advanced the ball to the Tennessee Tech 26 and there were still 44 seconds left.
“It was great to see us move the ball quickly and efficiently and get out of bounds when we needed to,” said Stave, who would wind up going 10-for-10 on the drive.
After a 9-yard completion to Doe, Melvin Gordon ran for 7 before the Badgers burned another timeout. There were 31 seconds remaining and the ball was on the 10.
After a 4-yard completion to Derek Straus, Stave found Brian Wozniak in the end zone for a touchdown, which put an exclamation point on an 11-play, 94-yard drive that consumed just 1:37.
“I would say that was a big step for our offense,” Andersen said, “for the confidence of the kids in the huddle, for the quarterback, for the coordinator (Andy Ludwig), for myself.
“There were a lot of people involved in the two-minute drive (seven different receivers), which was nice. There wasn’t panic on the sidelines.
“We had three timeouts left, which always help when you’re in those situations because you kind of can play a little different pace when you know you have those in your pocket.”
Overall, Andersen felt the two-minute drill had a “calming feel” to it.
It felt the same way to Stave, who had struggled at times in these situations during training camp. On Saturday, though, he adhered to his mental check list.
“Don’t take a sack,” he reminded himself. “That kills a two-minute drive. It keeps the clock running and we’re going the wrong way obviously.
“Don’t take a sack. If you can’t get it to anyone (downfield), get it to the checkdown and let him run with it. Besides that, be smart with the ball, make good decisions and get it out of your hand quick.”
White had his own priorities.
“You definitely have to pay attention to the pass protection and help the offensive linemen if they’re getting beat,” said White, who is regarded as the best blocker among UW’s tailbacks.
“If we’re going to pass the ball each and every play, the offensive line, the running backs and the quarterbacks all have to be on the same page with the pass protection.
“I’ll get out late on my route and if the ball comes to me, I’ll try to get out of bounds, if I can. If I can’t, I’ll try to advance the ball up the field and I’ll down when I’m getting wrapped up.”
On involving multiple receivers, Stave said, “When you can spread it around like that, I think it makes the offense that much more dangerous.
“That’s the plan, not just from my perspective, but the coaches. We try to spread it around and make sure the same guy is not catching the ball all the time.”
Stave was flawless in his execution of the two-minute drill.
|The celebration was on when Wozniak caught the first touchdown pass of his career.
“It was great to see Joel so confident and make every throw,” said Wozniak, who was mobbed in the end zone after scoring his first career touchdown.
“It just shows how close of a team we are to see how excited they were for me. I felt like I got a monkey off my back a little bit. I was just excited to help the team in some way other than blocking.”
Wozniak, a fifth-year senior tight end from Loveland, Ohio, has no complaints about his role.
“I’m the on-line guy and I don’t mind that all; I love getting my hands dirty,” he said. “But we’re a versatile group and we’re a (receiving) threat more than people think.”
Probably no one thought that Straus, a redshirt sophomore from Waunakee, Wis., would put the Badgers on the board first against Tennessee Tech with his first career touchdown reception.
“Time kind of just stood still,” said Straus, who was subbing for injured fullback Derek Watt. “A lot ran through my mind. It was fun celebrating with my teammates, stuff like that.
“It was just exciting to get in and finally play here and contribute to this team. It was a dream-come-true. Getting that first catch (a 3-yard gain two plays earlier) really calmed me down.”
Leading up the game, Watt prepared Straus for what he might face. “Every day, every rep, he was there helping,” Straus said. “He was saying what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right.”
As a group, the Badgers have done much right in their first two victories.
But Arizona State will pose a whole different challenge.
“Obviously,” O’Neill said, “this is where the season begins.”