Wisconsin recognizes value of special teams

LOS ANGELES -- You could make a good case that Wisconsin's season turned in 12 seconds.

That's how long it took Badgers receiver David Gilreath to run 97 yards after receiving the opening kickoff against then-No. 1 Ohio State on Oct. 16.

"I don't know if it was a turning point," Gilreath said. "It was something that got us going. I still have people asking me about it. I can still watch it on YouTube and kind of get that feeling."

Gilreath's kick return touchdown set the tone for Wisconsin's 31-18 win against the Buckeyes, the biggest victory of the Bret Bielema era and one that spurred the Badgers to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons. But the runback was just one of several special moments in the kicking game for the Badgers.

Special teams played an enormous role in Wisconsin's 20-19 win against Arizona State on Sept. 18. Safety Jay Valai blocked a potential game-tying PAT attempt in the closing minutes, and safeties Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward stopped Sun Devils kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks just shy of the goal line as the second quarter expired, saving a touchdown.

A week after the Ohio State win came "chain," a fake punt Wisconsin executed from its own 26-yard line while trailing Iowa 30-24 in the fourth quarter. The Badgers continued their drive and scored the game-winning touchdown to edge the Hawkeyes, 31-30.

"In those situations, those were big plays in our game, in our season, to get us where we are today," coach Bret Bielema said.

Special teams likely will loom large again Saturday against TCU in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. The Horned Frogs are solid on special teams and exceptional on both kickoff and punt returns, ranking fifth nationally in both categories.

TCU receiver Jeremy Kerley ranks among the top 20 nationally in both kickoff and punt returns. Wisconsin has struggled on both kickoff and punt coverage, ranking 106th nationally and 103rd nationally, respectively, although most of the struggles took place early in the season.

"Turning a weakness into a strength was a major thing we did this year," Wisconsin safety Jay Valai said of the special teams play. "We had a couple [shaky] games there for a second, Arizona State and Michigan State. We really woke up from those games and knew we had to really emphasize special teams."

Gilreath will never forget his runback against Ohio State.

About the only thing that could top it is a return touchdown in Pasadena.

"To get one in this game, I don't even know what I'd do," he said. "I'd turn [to the coaches] and [say], 'I'm done for the game. Take me out.' You’ve got to go out like [John] Elway or something."