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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Johnson and Valai heroes as Badgers stumble past ASU

 Coming into Saturday's matchup, everybody knew the performance of Wisconsin's secondary would be important. In the end, three defensive backs teamed up to make the two biggest plays of the game for the Badgers.

The only surprise is that Arizona State's offense was not on the field for either.

Late in the second quarter, the Badgers put together a textbook drive that culminated in a 14-yard touchdown pass senior quarterback Scott Tolzien to senior tight end Lance Kendricks. The score gave Wisconsin it's first lead of the game at 13-10, and seemed sure to send the Badgers into the locker room with all the momentum.

However, when Sun Devil freshman Kyle Middlebrooks took the ensuing kickoff right up the middle and raced down the right sideline, it looked as if the momentum was sure to be snuffed out and reversed.

Redshirt freshman safety Dezmen Southward managed to get a hand on Middlebrooks and slow him just enough to allow Southward to make a touchdown saving tackle at the one yard line.

""I've harped on these kids that every play matters since about last Jaunary,"" head coach Bret Bielema said. ""There is no better example of that than today with the play Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward made right before the half to never give up.""

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It did not look like either Johnson or Southward had a good enough angle to catch the speedy Middlebrooks, but Southward said that did not cross his mind.

""I'm the safety, and he's all the way on the other side of the field but I have to go get him and just did my best to do that,"" he said.

Bielema said not many guys on the team could have made that particular play, adding, ""If you want two guys to track somebody down those are our two fastest guys.""

In the waning moments of the fourth quarter, another member of the secondary— although a more experienced one in senior strong safety Jay Valai— made a tremendous play to block the extra point attempt off the foot of senior Sun Devil Kicker Thomas Weber. The ramifications were clear, as UW led 20-19 at the time of the attempt.

""That block that we put on there is the only time that was called,"" said Bielema, who added that the coaching staff has been experimenting with playing two offensive tackles with long wingspans— sophomore Ricky Wagner and senior Gabe Carimi-in an effort to get more of a push up front.

Despite the two game-changing plays from the special teams units, kick coverage has to be a real concern for Bielema and the Badgers moving forward. Middlebrooks' return came after junior cornerback Omar Bolden returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown. In total, ASU racked up 261 kick return yards on five attempts to average a whopping 52.2 yards per return. The Sun Devils also had a punt return for a touchdown negated by two block-in-the-back penalties, but the running lanes seemed to be all over the field.

The negated return charachterized much of the contest for Arizona State, as the team committed eight penalties for 61 yards. Several times, procedure penalties halted offensive effectiveness. The biggest may have come on Wisconsin's final drive, when junior defensive end James Brooks committed a personal foul that kept the Badgers out of a third-down situation.

""They've had a little bit of a history with penalties so we knew we couldn't react to anything negative,"" Bielema said.

Overall, the Badgers took a step forward in performance on Saturday, though the coverage units took a big step back. Even in times where performance has lagged though, this team has displayed mental toughness and discipline. On Saturday, it proved to be the difference between 2-1 and 3-0.

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