Oct. 8, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin fullback Derek Watt heard the Illinois players yelling out the play from their sidelines.
“Wheel route -- wheel route -- he’s running the wheel route.’’
Watt was close enough to hear them because he was running in front of the Illinois bench.
“And the whole sideline was yelling,’’ he said.
Alerting the defense on the field to what is happening is not uncommon.
“They knew what I was doing,’’ Watt said, “but they couldn’t stop it.’’
Turnaround is fair play. The UW defense has been burned three times for touchdowns on the wheel route -- by a tailback, not a fullback -- twice in the season opener against Northern Iowa.
The Badgers ran the play against Utah State -- Watt comes out of the backfield parallel to the line of scrimmage and turns upfield -- and he was open. But the pass was just out of his reach.
On Saturday, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave hit Watt in full stride.
“I didn’t actually get a chance to see him catch it,’’ Stave admitted.
That’s because he was knocked to the turf after releasing the pass.
What he did see was Illinois trying to cover Watt with defensive end Michael Buchanan.
Watt saw the same thing and his eyes lit up as he sprinted along the east boundary.
“They tried to drop their defensive end with help over the top,’’ Watt said. “But he (Stave) put the ball right where it needed to be and I made the catch.’’
Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne attempted to break up the play by lowering his helmet and shoulder into Watt right after he had secured the football. Hawthorne got the worst of it.
“I had no idea the kid was hurt,’’ Watt said. “He hit me up high and I tried to stay on my feet and get some extra yardage. When I got up, I started celebrating with my teammates.
“I didn’t even know that he (Hawthorne) was down.’’
Hawthorne stayed down while emergency personnel rushed to his assistance.
“Obviously, it’s never a good feeling when someone is down, when someone is hurt,’’ Watt said. “I felt bad and I was hoping that he was alright.’’
Hawthorne was taken off the field in an ambulance. But Illinois coach Tim Beckman reported that a CT scan was negative and Hawthorne was scheduled to fly back to Champaign with the team.
“I don’t know exactly how the hit happened,’’ Watt said. “I kind of want to see the replay.’’
Among other things, it will show that Illinois was penalized 15 yards for Hawthorne’s high hit.
The third-quarter play originated from the UW 26 -- on a second-and-11 -- and the pass completion was good for 26 yards. The penalty yardage gave the Badgers a first down on the Illinois 33.
Following the delay, the Badgers had a chance to break open a 7-7 game but Stave’s pass fell well short of tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was open in the end zone on a post route.
“It was just not a good pass on my part,’’ Stave said.
The Illinois defense stiffened and the Badgers settled for a 46-yard field goal from Kyle French.
“I was definitely confident that I could make that kick,’’ French said afterward.
That not only broke the tie, but it clearly shifted the momentum in the second half.
“Even though we didn’t score a touchdown, we needed that (field goal),’’ Watt said. “It gave us that boost and we took off from there.’’
Indeed. The Badgers outscored Illinois, 21-7, in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we finished real well in the second half,’’ said Pedersen. “But this can’t be a tale of two halves. We have to come out and play a full four-quarter game.
“We struggled in the first half; we just weren’t executing. We came out in the second half and made some good corrections and got points on the board. Guys had a lot of energy.’’
That was especially true of tailback Montee Ball.
“If we end up where we want to end up at the end of the season,’’ Ball said. “We’ll look back on the fourth quarter. But let’s give credit to Illinois for making us sweat.’’
UW running backs coach Thomas Hammock liked Ball’s answer -- on the field.
“For him to be frustrated through the first three quarters and to respond the way he did in the fourth quarter,’’ Hammock said, “goes to show you what he’s about and what type of player he is.’’
Added tailback James White, who scored his first career receiving touchdown on a first-half screen, “Montee ran real physical and he’s getting better each and every week.’’
So is Watt, who was converted from linebacker to fullback at the start of training camp.
“He has come a long way,’’ Hammock said. “He’s getting better weekly and learning from his mistakes. He certainly gives us a chance as an offense to continue to grow.
“Football is important to him. He studies the game. He practices hard. He wants to be a good player and he’s making those sacrifices to become one.
“He’s tough and physical, and what I tell him is ‘play fast and play hard.’ We can clean up the details of techniques as he continues to get more game experience.’’
There’s something else that stands out about Watt.
“He’s got really good hands for being a fullback,’’ Stave said. “And he’s fast.’’
The key for Watt has been finding a comfort level with a new position.
“I’m starting to get into a little groove now and I feel like I’m playing some better ball,’’ said Watt, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound redshirt freshman from Pewaukee, Wis. “Overall, I feel comfortable.’’
Asked about the demands of blocking much bigger players, he said, “I feel like I’ve been able to hold my own in there. It’s not like I’m blocking the 320-pound D-linemen.’’
On lead blocks, Watt will usually draw a linebacker or a safety or a defensive end.
The Illini have since discovered that they can’t cover him with the latter on a wheel route.
Maybe others will take note.
On earning some respect for his receiving ability, Watt said, “That’s true. Maybe they’ll have to start game planning around me which Illinois obviously did. They knew what I was running.’’
But they couldn’t stop it.
Addressing all facets of the offense, Watt gave his own yell-out, “We just have to execute.’’
Based on the fourth quarter, the Badgers should take some momentum into Saturday’s game at Purdue.
“We just have to keep building on it from here,’’ said Pedersen, cutting to a season-long chase.