Found October 06, 2012 on Fox Sports Wisconsin:
MADISON, Wis. The Wisconsin of old might not be coming back this season, but at least the Badgers discovered considerable improvement during Saturday's 31-14 victory against Illinois.Wisconsin ran the ball well to establish the play-action pass, and the Badgers' defense kept the Illini in check in critical situations. If the season ended today and of course there are still six weeks remaining Wisconsin would actually represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten championship. Saturday's victory puts Wisconsin ahead of Purdue, Illinois and Indiana, at least temporarily in the race for the division title. Penn State and Ohio State are ineligible this year for the postseason.Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from Saturday's game:1. The Badgers possess one of the best linebacker units in the countryMost college football fans probably knew about the tackling prowess of linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. Neither has disappointed this season.But few likely knew about the team's third starting linebacker, Ethan Armstrong, a walk-on from Ottawa, Ill., who earned a scholarship this season in his fourth year with the program. On Saturday, Armstrong matched his career high with 10 total tackles."Ethan is a great player," Borland said. "I think sometimes he gets left out of the conversation. He deserves a ton of credit for what he does for us."Of course, Borland and Taylor aren't too shabby, either.Taylor registered 12 tackles against Illinois and Borland 10, which means all three linebackers combined for an astonishing 32 tackles."I don't know if that's ever happened while I've been here," Borland said.Taylor has recorded at least 12 tackles in 11 of his last 16 games. Borland has 11 double-digit tackling games in his career. Even before the game, Taylor ranked tied for seventh in the country with 11.0 tackles per game. And Borland earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors two weeks ago.None of Wisconsin's three linebackers play for the statistics. It's merely a byproduct of the effort and energy each gives on the field."I don't think any of us kind of noticed who was making plays," Armstrong said. "It was just that everyone was kind of out there and making plays. It was a lot of fun. We're all able to feed off each other. Once one starts to make a play, then the next guy does and it kind of snowballs."2. Montee Ball is down but not outHey, you can write off Ball for another Heisman Trophy-type season. He's not going to New York City as a finalist unless he runs for 200 yards and three touchdowns in every game the rest of the season. But that doesn't mean he can't still have a productive season.On Saturday, Ball carried 19 times for 116 yards with two touchdowns. Yes, you can nitpick and say that some of those yards came in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach and the Illinois defense gassed. You can't however, argue with the overall fourth-quarter production. Ball gained 97 of his yards and scored both touchdowns in the fourth quarter. His first touchdown put Wisconsin ahead 17-7 with 13:28 remaining in the game."If everything goes as planned, if we end up where we want to end up at the end of the season, we'll look back at that fourth quarter," Ball said.Ball's two rushing touchdowns moved him into a tie for third in NCAA history with 69 career touchdowns, even with Texas Tech's Taurean Henderson. Ball needs just 10 touchdowns to break the NCAA record of 78 held by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio). His 63 career rushing touchdowns tie him for fifth in NCAA history with former Wisconsin great Ron Dayne. This season, Ball has carried 143 times for 569 yards with eight touchdowns. He is averaging 94.8 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry. It's not exactly the 137.4 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry from last season, but his production has risen steadily after a tough start to the year."I thought Montee really closed out the game there," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said following Saturday's game. "Kind of saw some mojo. He really had great presence out there on the field."3. Wisconsin appears to have found its starting quarterback of the futureYes, there was one oddly timed series in which third-string quarterback Curt Phillips took Wisconsin's snaps on Saturday (more on that in a minute). For the most part, however, starter Joel Stave looked poised and polished.Stave, a redshirt freshman making his third career start, threw for a career-high 254 yards, eclipsing the 200-yard mark for the third time in his three starts. He also set career highs for completions (16) and attempts (25)."He doesn't do everything right and obviously is going to get better every game," Bielema said. "What he gives us there is really something special. That's just going to keep getting better."On the season, Stave has completed 42 of 71 passes (59.2 percent) for 693 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. His cool demeanor in the huddle has been vital when the offense has looked chaotic.Now, back to the Phillips situation.Phillips, who hadn't played in a game since Oct. 31, 2009, against Purdue, came to the huddle Saturday for the third series of the game. It was a planned package, according to Bielema, but it still was a head-scratcher. Phillips' only completion was wiped out because of a penalty and his only stat was losing two yards on one rushing attempt. Wisconsin went three-and-out.On the next drive, Stave entered the game and threw an interception on his first pass."The offensive coaches and myself wanted to give Curt an opportunity to get out there and show what he's got," Bielema said. "It wasn't anything against Joel. We were going to do it on the third series and that's what happened. Obviously, it didn't work successfully. "Curt's a guy that's got a lot of respect in the locker room. He's a guy that I think can bring some mojo. He's got a good attitude, and I just wanted to give him an opportunity to get out there."Stave, for his part, said his confidence wasn't affected by the decision. But if he is the quarterback of the future, it wouldn't hurt to let him take all the snaps.4. Kyle French earned his job as the team's starting field goal kickerFrom week to week, nobody knew who would emerge as Wisconsin's field-goal and extra-point taker. French appeared to have the gig locked up, but he missed a field goal and an extra point, and he couldn't keep kickoffs in-bounds. As a result, Bielema pulled him in favor of freshman Jack Russell in all areas. Although Russell possesses a better leg, his accuracy in games hasn't been there, either. He has missed both of his field goal tries.Finally, Bielema settled on making French the field goal kicker and Russell the kickoff man. That move has paid off.On Saturday, French drilled a crucial 46-yard field goal attempt that put Wisconsin ahead 10-7 with 5:53 remaining in the third quarter. It bested French's previous career long of 35 yards, and the Badgers never trailed again."Might have been the biggest play for anybody on the field today," Bielema said. "And Kyle has been good in camp at times. Just at times seems to mis-hit it, but I thought it was a huge confidence boost today. I have a lot of faith in Kyle, and hopefully it's going to be a lot of good kicks moving forward."5. Yes, Wisconsin can win this divisionJust when fans appeared to enter panic mode, the Badgers scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to reaffirm that the season isn't a lost cause.The postseason bans of Ohio State and Penn State have set up one of the wildest scenarios in recent college football history. After two weeks of Big Ten play, both of those teams appear to be the two best in the Leaders Division. That means one of the other teams could finish third and still represent the division in the Big Ten championship game.This is where the Badgers enter the picture. Wisconsin isn't as good as Ohio State, and it will have to play Penn State in Happy Valley. But if Wisconsin can win the other games and finish 5-3 in the conference, there's a realistic chance the Badgers could wind up in third place.Illinois and Indiana are both 0-2 in the Big Ten and probably out of the picture. It appears to be a two-team race between Wisconsin and Purdue, which lost 44-13 to Michigan on Saturday.And as luck would have it, Wisconsin is playing at Purdue next Saturday. Win that game, and the Badgers will be sitting pretty in the Leaders Division even if it puts the team in third place.Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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