Oct. 19, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin safety Dez Southward saw it coming -- the tipped pass and the light coming on. There was a correlation between the two.
There was also a correlation between what happened on game day and the multiple interceptions that Southward had during Friday's practice before the Badgers flew to West Lafayette.
First, the tip which led to a pick in last Saturday's 38-14 win at Purdue.
"I don't know if I caught the ball,'' said Southward, chuckling, "or it caught me.''
After both teams had exchanged touchdowns on their first offensive possessions, the Boilermakers were driving again. On third-and-7 from the UW 29, quarterback Caleb TerBush's pass was tipped by the intended receiver, Crosby Wright, and picked off by Southward, who returned it 31 yards.
It was only the second interception of the season for Wisconsin.
"It's something that definitely weighs on you because we haven't gotten a lot of them (picks),'' Southward said. "We've really been fighting and straining to get more. The more that we're in the right spots, the more we're doing things the right way, they'll come. That was an example.
"I didn't make an exceptional play. I didn't do anything out there that anyone else couldn't have done. I was where I was supposed to be and it was a tipped ball and I came up with it.
"That was great for me, great for my confidence, and great for the team. You could really see the momentum change.''
The Boilers didn't cross midfield again until the fourth quarter. The Badgers finished with nine tackles for loss and five sacks. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor each had two TFLs and a sack, while defensive tackle Beau Allen and Southward were the co-Defensive MVPs of the week.
"Dez played his best football game here at Wisconsin,'' said UW coach Bret Bielema.
Specifically, he felt that Southward has made his huge strides over the last month. The correlation here is that it coincided with the absence of the injured Shelton Johnson, who was sidelined for three games.
"He (Southward) knew that he had to take over the back end,'' Bielema said.
The timing couldn't have been better for the light to come on, either. If that's what happened.
"It really felt like that,'' said Southward, a junior from Sunrise, Fla.
It's been an ongoing process given that he played only year of high school football in Florida at Saint Thomas Aquinas, where he was a three-year captain and two-time MVP in basketball.
"I feel like things are starting to slow down for me,'' Southward said. "I really understand things at a higher level. I'm recognizing things faster, and it's allowing me to make more plays.
"If you go back to a few plays earlier this year, I feel like I'm playing a lot faster. If you compare the same exact plays to last year and my redshirt freshman year, you'll see me reacting way slower.
"I was not using my speed and athletic ability because I was over-thinking and guessing too much. When you truly know something -- you see it and believe it -- you can make some huge plays.''
Bielema saw it with his own eyes at Purdue. He cited one of Southward's tackles on a kickoff return that impacted field position, and another on a delayed screen that resulted in a TFL.
"He's probably pound-for-pound our best athlete on the football team,'' Bielema said.
A couple of weeks ago, the Badgers were precariously thin at safety. Johnson was still rehabbing from his broken arm and Southward missed practice time on Tuesday and Wednesday with an injury.
"We didn't even know if he was going to play on Saturday,'' Bielema conceded.
Late in the week, Southward approached Bielema and said, "Coach, I'm going to be there.''
Sure enough, he was there -- in the starting lineup against Illinois.
"That strong-willed nature really showed up,'' Bielema said.
As it did on the eve of the Purdue game.
"I had four or five picks,'' Southward said of Friday's practice at Camp Randall.
That set the stage for his first career interception.
"What we did in practice,'' he said, "is exactly what happened in the game.''
Looking ahead to Saturday's game -- the annual Border Battle between Minnesota and Wisconsin -- Southward confessed that he knew nothing about the rivalry before coming to Madison.
Back then, he was geographically challenged, having never left Florida.
"Honestly, I probably couldn't have pinpointed Wisconsin on a map,'' he said.
But now, like his Badger teammates, he doesn't need a GPS to find Paul Bunyan's Axe. For the last eight years, it has been in a trophy case in the UW locker room.
"It's a pretty special rivalry,'' Southward said, "and I'm proud to be a part of it.''
If you're looking for a scouting report on the Gophers, just ask UW tight end Brian Wozniak.
"Minnesota,'' he predicted, "will come in here with a high motor.''
Wozniak, a redshirt junior, has been around the rivalry long enough to get a feel for it, despite the fact that his roots are in Ohio, not Wisconsin nor Minnesota.
"It's one of those games,'' he said, "where there's a heightened alert and urgency.''
That's how the Badgers treated last Saturday's road game in West Lafayette.
"Wisconsin ran all over us,'' said Purdue safety Landon Feichter.
IBoilers coach Danny Hope also candidly admitted that his defense wasn't prepared to handle the UW tight ends in the play-action game. Jacob Pedersen had four catches, Wozniak had two.
"We've been preaching it since the spring,'' said Wozniak, who has seven receptions overall in seven games. "We want to be an effective weapon blocking and receiving.
"When Ped (Pedersen) is making great catches like he was and I'm able to slip out and get Joel's (Stave) eye, that's just great for getting the double teams off Abby (Jared Abbrederis).''
Plus, he noted that it also "relieves some pressure off the running game.''
Never have truer words been spoken. The Badgers rushed for 467 yards at Purdue.
"Everything was kind of coming together for us,'' Wozniak said.
Montee Ball rushed for 247, James White for 124, Melvin Gordon for 80 and Pedersen for 10.
That was not a misprint. In the third quarter, UW quarterback Joel Stave handed the football to Pedersen, who picked up a first down on his first collegiate carry.
This was not a jet-sweep as much as it was a stealth-sweep.
"I should have gone with the stiff arm,'' Pedersen lamented after being tackled by Feichter.
In 2009, the Badgers executed a similar tight end-around play with Lance Kendricks.
"I'm not to his level yet,'' Pedersen said.
Kendricks had four carries for 91 yards, including a 54-yard run, against Purdue.
"I did run the ball in high school,'' said Pedersen, who lined up at a variety positions for his high school team in Menominee, Mich. "It kind of brought back flashbacks.''
Wozniak could have said the same thing about his two catches against the Boilers.
As a senior, he led Loveland (Ohio) High School in receiving. He also played linebacker, though his best position may have been point guard. Wozniak was an all-conference basketball player.
"Basketball was definitely my first love,'' he said.
As a youngster, he also had a passion for Peyton Manning (still does) and Notre Dame. "I grew up watching those guys,'' he said, "and playing with my uncle's national championship ring.''
His uncle, Tom Creevey, was a member of Notre Dame's 1973 national championship team that went 11-0 and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. His grandfather also played football for the Irish.
"I would have loved for them (the Irish) to have had a little interest in me,'' Wozniak said. "But they never really did. They were in-between coaches and (Kyle) Rudolph was their tight end.''
In retrospect, he's glad that the Badgers gave him an opportunity to play in the Big Ten.
And now he's trying to make the most of it -- in tandem with Pedersen.
"Woz and Ped together at tight end were really, really effective,'' Bielema said.
That was the case whether they were blocking for Ball or catching the ball at Purdue.
"We did not expect that,'' Hope said.
Ethan Armstrong got a scare near the end of the third quarter last Saturday. No, it was not the sight of 335-pound Beau Allen blocking a Purdue punt, although that was a little scary, too.
"Right before Beau's block, right at the end of that series, I got cut-blocked,'' said Armstrong, who felt the pain shoot through his knee. "I came over to the sidelines and it just wasn't feeling right.
"I had the training staff take a look at it, and they shut me down (for the rest of the game). I was a little nervous because I didn't really evaluate too well. It was kind of hard to be optimistic.''
That's because Armstrong had dislocated his knee.
All he could do was wait for the results from the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
"I got some great news (Sunday), it was what I was hoping for,'' said Armstrong, a junior from Ottawa, Ill. "There was no structural damage that they needed to do surgery on.''
His reaction to the news? "I'm good to go,'' he said. "Suit me up and get me out there.''
Armstrong returned to practice Wednesday.
"I was hoping for Tuesday,'' he confided. "But we just wanted to be cautious. Our coaching staff and training staff are not going to put you in a bad situation.
"I give them a lot of thanks for the care that they've given me -- I've needed it.''
At last count, Armstrong has had surgery on both shoulders and both hips.
Broken fingers are not included in the total.
Asked if his injury history has made rehabbing any easier, he said, "I know what to expect now.''
Bielema has always respected and admired Armstrong's toughness.
"He has made mention to me,'' Bielema said, "something to the effect that he's going to bump Kyle Costigan out of the title of toughest guy on the team.''
Costigan, a starting offensive guard, played most of the Nebraska game on a dislocated knee.
What drives Armstrong in these situations? What pushes him through the pain?
"It's safe to say that I'm more scared of being nothing than I am of being hurt,'' he said.
In this context, how would he define his pain threshold? Armstrong reasoned, "It just means what you can tolerate, what your mind is able to overcome, what you can kind of block out.''
Armstrong, a former walk-on, is playing his best football and drawing notice from NFL scouts.
"Chris (Borland) and Mike (Taylor) take away a lot of the limelight,'' Bielema said. "But Ethan is as good of an athlete as those two guys and probably just as fast.''
There's another characteristic of his play.
"He's just incredibly resilient,'' Bielema said.
So it should not have been a surprise that Armstrong would be back this week; especially this week, Minnesota week. "It's rivalry week,'' he stressed. "It's for the Axe.''
Nothing should be taken for granted, he opined, and nothing is around here.
"Anytime you play Minnesota, you're going to get their best shot,'' Armstrong said. "Whether the game is played here or there, it's going to be a battle and you'd better be ready for a fight.''