The Wisconsin Badgers had their first real test Saturday as they hosted the Arizona State Sun Devils. As Big Ten play approaches, the Badgers have been working to get themselves into shape to contend in conference play.
They still do not appear ready.
The Badgers won a close contest at home against the Sun Devils 20-19, as the game came down to a very crucial extra point block from senior safety Jay Valai.
Regardless of a pretty unimpressive and close game, there were five Badgers who stood out most in the contest.
With quarterback Scott Tolzien missing two of his better targets in Nick Toon (turf toe) and David Gilreath (concussion), the stage was set for senior tight end Lance Kendricks to step up and make an impact.
Kendricks did more than was asked of him.
Hauling in seven receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown, Kendricks filled the role of a go-to target for Tolzien against the Arizona State defense.
Kendricks is known for his great ability to be involved in pass protection and run-blocking, but he showed that he needs to be taken seriously as a receiving threat as well.
The performance on Saturday was reminiscent of Kendricks' performance last season in the Champs Sports Bowl, in which he recorded seven catches for 128 yards.
The game against Arizona State should prove to be a great stepping stone for Kendricks to continue to elevate his game in 2010.
Scott Tolzien had started off his 2010 season with a couple of shaky performances, but rebounded nicely at home against the Sun Devils.
Going 19-of-25 for 246 yards and a big touchdown pass to tight end Lance Kendricks to close the first half, Tolzien finished the day with a well-rounded performance.
In Wisconsin’s system, the quarterback is never asked to do much and is not expected to air it out on each and every down. What Wisconsin needs out of its quarterback is consistent, mistake-free, game-managing play.
The Badgers' quarterback proved last year that he can fill this role in the team’s offense. Tolzien finished 2009 as the most efficient passer in the Big Ten Conference, as well as the most efficient passer in Wisconsin football history.
By no means is Tolzien on track and ready to hit the ground running in Big Ten Conference play. Tolzien still appears out of sync with his receivers on some plays and is just inaccurate on others.
As with Kendricks, the steady performance on Saturday will provide something to look back on and build upon moving forward.
The workhorse of the Wisconsin Badgers offense this season kept on rolling against Arizona State. Running back John Clay continues to rush for 100-plus yards per game, as he is 3-for-3 rushing over the century mark this season.
Clay carried the ball 22 times for 123 yards and one touchdown.
The day started off slowly for Clay, as he still continues to see the field in spurts. With Clay coming off two offseason ankle injuries, head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst have been slowly working him back into midseason condition.
While Clay still continues to receive the bulk of the carries, backups Montee Ball and James White also contribute.
In the second half, Clay broke off a couple nice runs, including his 19-yard touchdown run to give the Badgers a late lead.
Everyone who studies the Wisconsin defensive line immediately learns of the impact junior defensive end J.J. Watt has. No one has likely paid as close attention to the man on the other end of the line, Louis Nzegwu.
Perhaps they will now.
In a rough day for the defensive line and run defense of the Badgers, Nzegwu did a great job of making some big and much-needed tackles.
Nzegwu has been doing his best to fill in for last season’s tackle-for-loss and sack leader, O’Brien Schofield. He did an excellent job of that Saturday.
The Arizona State offense seemed to be having its way with the Badgers' defensive line, becoming the first team since last season to have a rusher go for over 100 yards against the Wisconsin defense. Wisconsin appeared helpless against the draws and option run plays.
Nzegwu came up huge in the second half with a big sack on Arizona State quarterback Steven Threet. The play seemed to give the UW defense rejuvenated energy, and it seemed to settle in.
It will be great for Wisconsin if defensive end Louis Nzegwu can continue to bring pressure from the other side of the line, allowing less focus to be placed on J.J. Watt.
Perhaps the biggest individual performer of the game was senior safety Jay Valai.
In a horrendous performance from the Wisconsin Badgers' special teams, Valai seemed to help everyone forget about all the mistakes for a moment or two.
With just minutes left in the game, Arizona State ran the ball in to cut the Wisconsin lead to 20-19. As the Sun Devils were attempting the game-tying extra point, Valai came flying around the end, leaped in front, and blocked the kick.
Often when a team has just surrendered the game-tying score, the team lazily comes out onto the field just going through the motions and preparing for a possible overtime.
That was not the case for Valai and the Badgers, as their extra efforts on an extra point attempt earned them the 20-19 win.