MADISON, WIS. — The football Gods shined down on Camp Randall Stadium Saturday.
Although ASU outgained Wisconsin 288 to 139 in return yards, the No. 11 Badgers (3-0) made the two biggest plays of the day on special teams to hold off the upset-minded Sun Devils (2-1), 20-19.
After ASU trimmed the Badgers’ lead to a single point with a Cameron Marshall two-yard touchdown run, UW coach Bret Bielema dialed up everything he had at the Sun Devil field goal unit.
“That block that we put on there was the only time it’s been called this year,” Bielema said. “We put those guys in there and they had been blowing up the line pretty good and covering down with everyone else, and then this one [senior safety Jay Valai], took advantage of the opportunity he got and put his hand on the ball. It was awesome.”
As his coach alluded to, Valai was the Badger who deflected the kick by ASU senior Thomas Weber.
“The guy gave me a birthday gift,” Valai said, a day after his 23rd birthday. “Thank god we made the play, and we won. I jumped over somebody’s leg and made the play on the outside left side. I just put my head down; looked for the ball.”
UW and junior tailback John Clay ran out the remaining four minutes of the game to secure the victory.
“I take pride in the coaches having confidence in me and putting the ball in my hands,” Clay said. “I couldn’t do it without the guys in front. They said we’re going to grind the clock down and run the ball, and that’s what we did.”
The other play that will resonate long after Saturday occurred just moments prior to halftime.
After UW took the lead 13-10 on a 14-yard touchdown catch by senior tight end Lance Kendricks, ASU freshman Kyle Middlebrooks caught the ensuing kickoff with 10 seconds left in the second quarter.
The former California track star took the return 95 yards to the Badger 1-yard line before UW sophomore safety Shelton Johnson tackled him from behind to end the half.
“I was just running, trying to get to the ball,” Johnson said. “Dez [Southward] slowed him up enough that I could get to him and make the play. I was thinking, ‘No, don’t let this happen again.’ That would have been really deflating going into halftime. I was just hoping I got to him, and thankfully, I did.”
The announced sellout crowd of 81,332, 14,000 of which were students, rocked Camp Randall Stadium throughout the game, giving UW a clear-cut home field advantage.
“They did an unbelievable job,” redshirt junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. “If we can get them like that every single week it’d be awesome. It really energizes us, and I think it affects the other team as well. You feel all the changes in momentum, especially with our crowd.”
Despite the win, Wisconsin failed to assert dominance over an unranked non-conference opponent for the third straight week.
“From the first day I walked in here until now, you kind of welcome those adverse situations as long as, ultimately, you’re winning the game,” redshirt senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “You have to learn from it. You need to learn that it’s a game of momentum, and at times you’re going to lose the momentum and there’s a challenge; but that’s the great thing about the game. I think that’s why guys play the game, for those situations and to step up and execute.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com