Nov. 29, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
Befitting the No. 1-ranked defensive linemen in the state of Minnesota, Beau Allen had options. Notre Dame, Stanford and Michigan had all offered scholarships to the 305-pound Allen, a four-year starter at nose guard in a 3-4 defensive alignment at Minnetonka High School. Not only was Allen the leading tackler as a senior but he had seven sacks, three forced fumbles and three blocked kicks.
Notre Dame made his final cut before a coaching change eliminated the Irish. Allen, thus, became the subject of a Border Battle between Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2009. Three days before Christmas, UW head coach Bret Bielema and two of his assistants, Bob Bostad and Charlie Partridge, made their home visit and got what they came for -- Allen’s verbal commitment to the Badgers.
Nobody was happier than Allen’s uncle, John (Stoney) Westphal, who gave his heart and soul to UW football as a walk-on in the early ’80s. Unlike his nephew, Westphal’s options were limited coming out of Janesville Craig High School. He could have gone to the Ivy League or UW-Eau Claire. That was about it. Instead, he wrote a letter to the late Dave McClain and asked for a tryout at Wisconsin.
“Truth of the matter is,” Westphal said, “I don’t care if I would have gotten a scholarship offer from Alabama, USC or Notre Dame. I was born and raised a Badger. It was a no-brainer for me.”
Westphal’s dad -- Allen’s grandfather -- was an All-America swimmer for the Badgers. Fred Westphal was also a charter member of the UW Athletic Hall of Fame. Moreover, John Westphal’s sister, Susie, attended Wisconsin. That’s where she met her husband, Matt Allen, a UW cheerleader and graduate. Beau Allen later admitted that Bucky was in his DNA. The Gophers never really had a chance.
John Westphal, a past president of the National W Club, remembered thinking that his nephew had a chance to be a special athlete when he was 14; especially after he saw his nimbleness on water skis. “He was an above-average athlete in a body that was two times bigger than everyone else’s,” said Westphal. “Plus, he had a motor. He’s not the type of kid who’s going to play video games with his buddies or hang out after practice. His hobby was to become a really good football player.”
Unlike his Uncle John, who had six knee surgeries during his college football career, Beau Allen will get to his Senior Day relatively unscathed physically. On Saturday, he will be making his 24th career start and appearing in his 52nd game at Wisconsin. Allen, a four-year fixture, and tailback James White will bask in the spotlight together as the most prominent members of the 2010 recruiting class.
Among all of Allen’s memories may be a haunting one from 2011 and the inaugural Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. On fourth-and-3 from the UW 26, Allen ran on to the field as part of the punting unit. The Badgers were protecting a 42-39 lead over Michigan State and the Spartans had burned all of their timeouts to get the ball back.
A month earlier, Allen had replaced Robert Burge on the right wing of the three-man shield in front of punter Brad Nortman. This move was made after blocked punts in back-to-back losses at Michigan State and Ohio State. Now, as Nortman was lining up in punt formation, Allen was thinking, “Everything is on the line in this game and we have to get a defensive stop after we punt the ball.”
But the ball was snapped to Nortman sooner than anyone expected. In fact, it wasn’t supposed to be snapped at all. “So I was looking over the sidelines when it was snapped,” Allen confessed. UW tight end Jacob Pedersen wound up blocking the “R-4,” which was Allen’s assignment by design.
“I looked off the edge and (Michigan State’s) Isaiah Lewis was coming,” Allen said. “So I gave him a shot to make sure that he doesn’t block the punt. I pushed him half-heartedly and he went off-balance. Then I heard the crowd going crazy. I figured that he (Lewis) had gotten close to blocking it, but I knew that he didn’t because I saw the ball get off.
“Being the right shield, I’m responsible for keeping everyone contained on the punt return inside of me on the right side of the field. I saw their punt returner (Keshawn Martin) coming down the right side and I’m sprinting to contain him when out of nowhere some DB cracks me -- just drilled me. So he (Martin) got outside of me and I’m watching him run down to our 3-yard line.
“At that point, I didn’t realize there was a penalty, so I thought I had lost us the game because I didn’t do my job. I’m in despair. When I saw Brad (Nortman) take the guy (Martin) down, I’m thinking, ‘All right, at least, we’ve got a shot here for a defensive stop.’
“Then I saw everybody jumping for joy on our sidelines. I remember seeing Coach Partridge hugging Coach Bielema and the first thing that I thought was, ‘This can’t be right?”’
Then he saw the flag. Lewis was called for roughing Nortman and the Badgers kept the ball. Quarterback Russell Wilson dropped to his knees to run out the clock while Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio stewed on the sidelines knowing the Badgers, not the Spartans, were going to the Rose Bowl.
“The thing that I remember the most was all those emotions going through me in 10 seconds or so,” Allen reflected. “Honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t overload. It was just awesome to be part that first Big Ten championship game. That’s something that everyone is going to brag about to their kids.”
• • • •
Few will likely remember that Wisconsin wide receiver Jeff Duckworth was the first player to score a touchdown in a Big Ten championship game; he caught a 3-yard pass from Russell Wilson at 4:56 of the first quarter against Michigan State.
Few will ever forget his fourth-down catch.
On a fourth-and-6 from the MSU 43, Wilson lofted a pass that seemed to hang in the air forever. When it finally came down, Duckworth had positioned himself between Michigan State’s safeties, Trenton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis, to make a clutch reception on the Spartans’ 7-yard line.
Duckworth was filling a void created when Nick Toon had to leave the game with an injury. Duckworth’s catch led to a Montee Ball rushing touchdown and a successful two-point conversion as Wilson found Jacob Pedersen on a dart in the end zone; a dagger to the heart of the Spartans.
When Duckworth, a fifth-year senior, is introduced Saturday, he will be a reminder to everyone how far perseverance can take an athlete; particularly a gritty one like Duckworth who has constantly dealt with lower back pain from bulging discs; a condition that has limited his practice time.
This has been going on for about three years. The flare-ups have been bad, so bad that Duckworth couldn’t even bend over. There has been some numbness in his right leg from time to time. But he has always found a way to contribute, emerging unexpectedly, despite the physical setbacks.
Think back to the Debacle in the Desert.
On UW’s final possession at Arizona State, the Badgers faced a third-and-4 from their own 23. They were in desperate need of a big play and they got one when quarterback Joel Stave and Duckworth combined on a 51-yard pitch-and-catch that put Wisconsin in field goal range.
“It was a great play by Duck,” Stave said afterward. “He’s really reliable and he makes great adjustments on the ball. When I saw the defensive player’s back turned, I figured I’d give him a shot.”
Duckworth shook off the initial tackle attempt by ASU free safety Robert Nelson and “raced” down the sideline before Nelson was finally able to track him down on the Sun Devils’ 26.
“It was just a slot fade and Joel threw a great back-shoulder pass to me and I was able to make a play,” said Duckworth, one of the most unsung and unassuming players on the roster. “At first, I thought I might be able to score. But I felt a little pop in my hamstring and it slowed me down.”
The Pac-12 officials ran off the field faster than Duckworth ran down it. Yet he has always been to compensate for any deficiencies by mastering the game plan and nuances of his position. Those qualities can be traced back to when Duckworth was the first receiver to commit to the Badgers in 2009.
He was then known for the same things that he’s known for now: he was a good route-runner with a high football IQ. Duckworth played in a no-huddle spread offense at Princeton High School in Cincinnati. His quarterback was Spencer Ware, who went on to LSU and made his mark as a tailback.
Duckworth was not as highly-touted as Kraig Appleton, who was the marquee receiver in the ’09 recruiting class. But he outlasted Appleton and made a name for himself, Old Reliable. “You’ve just got to kind of prepare as a starter,” Duckworth said, “and be ready at all times.”
• • • •
Brendan Kelly was raw but ready to play as a true freshman in the 2008 season opener against Akron. And he made an immediate impact on special teams. “He took his first three snaps of college football on kickoff coverage,” Bret Bielema said, “and he looked like a seasoned veteran.”
Kelly looked like he was headed to Minnesota during the recruiting process. He verbally committed to the Gophers before having a change of heart and opting for Wisconsin. “It was a choice that I had to make,” said Kelly, who’s from Eden Prairie, Minn. “I wanted to win.”
Kelly went to the same high school, Holy Angels Academy, as former UW quarterback John Stocco, who turned out to be one of the most successful QBs in school history. The only quarterback in Kelly’s recruiting class was Curt Phillips, who redshirted as a freshman in ’08.
When asked what gave Kelly a chance to compete as a 235-pound first-year player, he said, “Attitude, speed, power. If you put yourself in the right situation with the right timing, plays will naturally happen. I’m going to be mentally sound and adapt to the speed and the strength.”
Kelly adapted but played in only three games as a freshman before a thumb injury ended his season. It would be a reoccurring storyline -- injuries -- as it would be for Phillips.
Both took part in Senior Day introductions before the 2012 Ohio State game at Camp Randall Stadium since they were in the process of applying to the NCAA for a sixth year. In somewhat of a rarity, Kelly and Phillips will again be recognized before Saturday’s kickoff against Penn State.
It has been an interesting journey for Phillips, who overcame three ACL surgeries on the same knee to become UW’s starter over the final five games last season, including the Rose Bowl.
When Phillips reported for spring practice in 2008 -- he was a mid-term graduate from Sullivan South High School in Kingsport, Tenn. -- he found himself in competition with Allan Evridge, Dustin Sherer, Scott Tolzien and James Stallons.
Such is the historical perspective that Phillips brings to another Senior Day -- a day, fittingly, that he will share with another quarterback, Jon Budmayr, who will also be introduced Saturday. If anyone can relate to what Phillips has endured in terms of injuries it would be Budmayr, who has topped him.
Budmayr never caught a break. But he never complained, never cursed his fate. He didn’t give up without a fight, either. When he finally walked away from the game, he conceded, “It was one of the toughest decisions that I ever had to make in my life.
“I love the game so much -- I put so much into it -- and for it to be over, it’s not just going to happen overnight where you’re just going to move on. It’s a process and I respect that fact. I called my parents and I just said, ‘It’s over. I just can’t do this to my body anymore.’
“It was very emotional. But it was the right decision.”
As a youngster, Budmayr dreamed of playing in the NFL after his college football career. He’s now planning on chasing his dream in coaching “to give back” to a game that has given him so much.
It should give you pause to think about the sacrifices that Budmayr and all the seniors have made to get to Saturday’s finish line; what should be a warm thought on a cold day.