Associated Press photo
As part of our coverage of the 98th Rose Bowl Game, here’s my story on Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson:
LOS ANGELES – There are a lot elements that were key for Wisconsin as the Badgers returned to the Rose Bowl Game
The X-factor is quarterback Russell Wilson, who is not a typical Wisconsin signal caller.
Wilson, a senior transfer from North Carolina State, added athleticism to a position that for years required nothing special, just someone who minimized mistakes while guiding an offense that used its mammoth front line and big running backs such as Ron Dayne and John Clay as focal points.
Wilson, at least for this season, changed that perception.
“The true sign of a great player is someone who can make something out of nothing,” said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, whose Badgers face Oregon in the 98th Rose Bowl Game on Monday. “A lot of times it might be a call offensively where the scheme for the success of that play shuts down and you have to make a change.
“Russell has made changes this year on first, second, third and even fourth down that have allowed us to stay alive and make a play.”
Wilson’s biggest audible came not at Camp Randall Stadium, but off the field.
The senior, after three solid seasons at North Carolina State, decided to transfer during the summer, choosing Wisconsin, and due to a NCAA rule that allows graduate students to transfer without sitting out a year, the Badgers found their missing variable.
“It’s been a special time,” said Wilson, who has thrown for 2,879 yards and 31
touchdowns while completing 72.5 percent of his passes (206 of 284). “When I came here, I told the guys when we had our first team meeting (in the summer), `Hey listen guys, I want to be part of something special. This is the reason I came here.’
“I believe we have a lot of great talent, a lot of great character on the team. I just wanted to improve and keep growing with these guys and build a great relationship here.”
It didn’t take long for Bielema to be sold.
“Russell reached out to us,” the Wisconsin coach said. “He’s a guy that played at N.C. State for three years and had the opportunity because he graduated early to dive into the world of fifth-year senior transfer quarterbacks.
“When his fax came across my desk, it kind of intrigued me a little bit. I reached out to him. He’s an exceptional human being. He’s a great quarterback, great player. Offensively, I’ve never seen anybody be able to do the things that he’s been able to do this year. But he’s just a great person and a great fit for our program.”
Wilson’s move paid off for Wisconsin from the start. He threw for 255 yards and two touchdowns in a 51-17 victory over Nevada Las Vegas in the opener, then followed it up with 189 and three scores a week later in a 35-0 victory over Oregon State.
“He came in and picked it up (the offense) right away,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. “You’re learning a foreign language. He learned it, and understood everything when we started camp (during August), and camp gave him a chance where it becomed more second nature. That only happens by working out and being exceptionally bright.
“He’s such an unselfish person that he didn’t fight the learning, he dove in and said, `This is what it is. I’m going to learn this.’ He’s truly been a joy to be around and I consider myself fortunate to have this year with him.”
Wisconsin has flourished under Wilson’s leadership. The Badgers, who also feature running back Montee Ball (1,759 yards rushing, 32 touchdowns) and receiver Nick Toon (55 receptions for 822 and 9 TDs), averaged more than 40 points a game while going 11-2 and advancing to the the Rose Bowl Game for the second consecutive season.
But it wasn’t an easy road for the Badgers, who were ranked as high as No. 4 nationally. They suffered two last-minute losses, losing to Michigan State on a “Hail Mary” pass on the game’s final play and losing on another deep pass late against Ohio State.
But it was Wilson, who got the Badgers back on the right path, leading Wisconsin to five consecutive victories, including a 42-39 victory over Michigan State in the first Big Ten title game.
“A lot of people have asked me, `How did you come back from that?’ I love the game of football,” Wilson said. “For me, every day is a blessing, every day is great time to shine, and that’s what I believe in. I just thought we had to keep playing, keep believing and keep fighting.”
Now Wilson is preparing for the Rose Bowl Game against Oregon. After that Wilson, who played minor league baseball last spring after being selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 2010 MLB First-Player Draft, said he’s not sure which sport he’ll choose. But he is expected to have the NFL as an option.
“Right now, I’m focusing on the Rose Bowl,” he said.