Oct. 28, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Mike Taylor still has some bittersweet memories from the Wisconsin-Iowa series that will be renewed Saturday for the first time since Oct. 23, 2010 when these rivals met at Kinnick Stadium and the Badgers rallied for a stirring 31-30 win that was oh-so-sweet for Taylor, the former UW linebacker.
Recalling it fondly, he said, “That was definitely a fun game, a fun environment, and a fun drive.”
Make that two drives that spelled the difference for the banged-up Badgers that were coming off an upset of No. 1-ranked Ohio State the week before. Playing without leading receiver Nick Toon and defensive tackle Jordan Kohout, they also lost Lance Kendricks, James White and Peter Konz to injuries.
Others, like Taylor, were playing on heart and adrenaline; a frequent occurrence for Taylor. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema would later say, “He was playing on one leg; he was one of the kids that got hurt (against the Buckeyes) and didn’t really practice all week.
The Hawkeyes, who had won six of the previous eight games in the series, ended up testing the Badgers’ resolve and resiliency, especially after they converted a Scott Tolzien interception into a Michael Meyer field goal that pushed Iowa into a 30-24 lead with 8:35 left in the fourth quarter.
That was the backdrop to the first of two defining drives.
The first one started on the UW 20 and appeared to have stalled after just three plays when punter Brad Nortman took the field on a fourth-and-4. But the Badgers stunned the Hawkeyes with a fake as Nortman ran 17 yards up the middle for a first down. Tolzien then kept the chains moving.
On third-and-5 from the UW 48, Tolzien completed a 12-yard pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen. On third-and-4 from the Iowa 34, Tolzien went to Pedersen again, but it was incomplete. On fourth down, Tolzien tapped into an unlikely receiving option, tailback Montee Ball.
Unlikely because Ball had not played in the Ohio State game; unlikely because Ball came into Iowa City as the No. 3 tailback behind John Clay and White; unlikely because Ball had caught only eight passes the entire season; and unlikely because Ball was used as a slot receiver in an empty backfield.
Unlikely or not, Ball caught the fourth-down pass -- one of his five catches in the game -- and picked up the first down on the Iowa 27. After two Clay runs, Tolzien twice called Ball’s number and he responded with two 8-yard bursts; the second of which resulted in the game-tying touchdown.
After Philip Welch kicked the Badgers to a 31-30 lead, only 66 seconds remained. Some may have thought that Wisconsin scored too soon since Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi seemingly had time enough to drive the Hawks into field goal range for Meyer, particularly with all three timeouts available.
A Stanzi pass to Allen Reisner gave the Hawkeyes a first down on their own 49. But UW defensive end J.J. Watt, who had blocked a PAT on Iowa’s first score of the game -- a block that would turn out to be the winning margin -- sacked Stanzi for a loss of 11 yards. The Hawks called timeout with 26 seconds left.
Stanzi showed his mettle by completing a 20-yard pass to Marvin McNutt, who was brought down on the UW 42, making it fourth-and-1. Iowa called a timeout with 14 seconds remaining to set up Stanzi’s 3-yard run to the UW 39. Instead of spiking the ball, the Hawks burned their final timeout.
That left 12 seconds on the clock.
“I remember,” Taylor said, “they were driving and had timeout issues.”
He also remembered what would be the final snap of the game.
“We were in Cover 2 and the linebackers were dropping back watching the quarterback,” he said. “J.J. was getting pressure and (Stanzi) kind of steps up and throws a shovel pass to the running back (Adam Robinson). My instincts kicked in and I somehow got him down inbounds.”
|“It’s just bad timing for me -- to get healthy halfway through the NFL season,” Taylor said. “It definitely would have helped if I was in training camp competing against other linebackers.”
Taylor tackled Robinson on the UW 35 as time expired.
The Wisconsin sideline erupted in celebration.
“I remember seeing highlights,” Taylor said, “of all the coaches jumping up and down.”
He also remembered sprinting over to the Iowa sidelines.
“We ran over looking for the pig,” he said, “and we couldn’t find it at first.”
He could be excused for confusing Floyd of Rosedale (a bronze pig awarded to the Minnesota-Iowa winner) for the Heartland Trophy (a bronze bull that became the UW-Iowa prize in 2004).
“It was almost like Minnesota,” Taylor said, referencing the Badgers’ rivalry with the Golden Gophers. “It was more competitive than it had been.”
Not that Taylor, nor anybody in his 2008 recruiting class, had previously gotten their hands on the Heartland Trophy, since the Hawkeyes beat Wisconsin in ’08 and ’09; the latter was a 20-10 loss at Camp Randall Stadium. That was the bitter in the bittersweet for Taylor, who tore his ACL in the game.
It was also a continuation of the setbacks that Taylor encountered his first two years at UW. He redshirted as a freshman because of an old injury, a bone spur in his neck, from his days at Ashwaubenon High School. After that, he dealt with hamstring injuries before blowing out his knee against the Hawkeyes.
But he persevered.
In 2010, he started 12 games and had the second most TFLs and interceptions on the Wisconsin defense. In 2011 and 2012, he led the Badgers in tackles and was named first-team All-Big Ten. Taylor wound up with 377 tackles, the seventh-best total in school history. He wound up in a lot of pain, too.
After the Oct. 27, 2012 Michigan State game, an overtime loss to the Spartans in Madison, Taylor said, “I woke up with the pain and it kept getting worse.” It was the pain associated with a sports hernia. “Towards the end of the season, it got really bad to where I couldn’t sprint,” he confided.
So why did he keep playing, especially after he was becoming more and more frustrated?
“Being me, I wanted to finish the season, I didn’t want to stop playing,” he said. “You obviously want to play in the Big Ten championship game; I didn’t want to miss that. We won and we went on to the Rose Bowl and I didn’t want to miss that.
“I shouldn’t have played in those last two games, it was pretty bad. But being a senior, and being that Coach (Barry) Alvarez was coaching us in the Rose Bowl, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play for him; I didn’t want to miss out on that. I probably should have had surgery well before I had surgery.
“The worse it got, the more time it set me back. But I probably would have done the same thing all over again.”
Taylor had surgery in January for the sports hernia. But after eight weeks, it wasn’t getting much better; a real concern since he was under the impression that he would be good-to-go again in four weeks. “I still couldn’t really run,” he said. “I couldn’t really do a whole lot.”
That necessitated more surgery in March. As a result, he missed the NFL scouting combine and UW’s pro day and went undrafted. Taylor didn’t start working out again until August. Splitting his time between Green Bay and Milwaukee, he finally got back into football shape.
On Oct. 7, Taylor had a tryout with the Green Bay Packers. The following day, he had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs. Less than a week later, he had a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks. He reported that he ran 4.62 in the 40 for the Packers and Chiefs, and 4.64 for the Seahawks.
“I felt better than I did before surgery. The time away from football heals a lot; it was a good thing for my body to experience,” said Taylor, adding that each tryout was pretty similar. “They want to make sure you’re healthy and they run you through some linebacker drills.
“It’s just bad timing for me -- to get healthy halfway through the NFL season. Teams have their rosters figured out. It definitely would have helped if I was in training camp competing against other linebackers. That’s when coaches see what kind of players they’ve got and choose their people.
“Injuries always happen, but for the most part, they have who they want.”
While the odds might be stacked against him, Taylor hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility that an NFL team may still get in touch with him yet this season and his agent “is still in the process of trying to set up something” with anybody who might be in need of a linebacker.
Not any linebacker, mind-you, but a linebacker who had 22 tackles at Ohio State and finished among the national leaders again last season. So the phone could still ring. A bigger question is whether he wants to stay alive as a prospect this winter and see where it all could lead next spring.
He has already talked to some people about getting into the workforce outside of football.
“I’ve got to start making some money,” he said.
While sorting through the questions on what his next course of action might be, Taylor has been following the Badgers from afar. He has yet to see a home game, but he’s planning on traveling to Minneapolis for the Nov. 23 renewal of the Border Battle between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“I’ve had setbacks -- surgeries are never a good thing to have -- but you keep moving forward,” said the 24-year-old Taylor. “You never really look back and wonder ‘what if?’ This is probably the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’m not sure what will happen next, but we’ll see.”
For starters, he would love to see that bronze pig, er, bull, stay in Madison.