Flag free: Badgers thrive on avoiding penalties
Not unbeaten Texas Christian, Wisconsin’s opponent in the 2011 Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.
Not even No. 1 Auburn or No. 2 Oregon, both unbeaten and set to meet for the Bowl Championship Series title Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.
“The way our team works is the offense has to control the ball and that helps the defense out,” third-year sophomore center Peter Konz said of the Badgers’ ability to avoid such mistakes in 2010. “So if we get a penalty, it kills a drive and the momentum might just swing.
“Doing that, not committing penalties, allows us to play our style of ball.”
The numbers are impressive alone and stunning when you compare them to Wisconsin’s recent past.
Wisconsin enters the Rose Bowl first nationally in fewest penalties per game at 2.92, a total of 35 for 358 yards in 12 games.
TCU, generally regarded as one of the better-coached teams in the nation, is No. 33 with 5.33 penalties per game (64 for 522 yards in 12 games).
Auburn is tied for 53rd at 5.69 per game (74 penalties for 698 yards) and Oregon is 101st at 7.25 per game (87 penalties for 761 yards).
Wisconsin is tied for first nationally with Iowa in fewest turnovers with nine (six interceptions and three fumbles).
TCU is fifth with 13 (seven fumbles, six interceptions).
Auburn is 11th with 15 turnovers (nine fumbles, six interceptions) and Oregon is tied for 63rd with 22 turnovers (15 fumbles, seven interceptions).
Auburn and Oregon have proved teams can overcome penalties and/or turnovers and remain unbeaten.
However, Wisconsin’s numbers illustrate a team can put itself in position to win by avoiding those mistakes.
“That means we’re not beating ourselves,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said of the paucity of penalties. “As big as a giveaway is—bad thing for an offense—it’s really bad for a defense, because now you’re taking the field after a sudden change.”
Wisconsin’s staff increased its effort to emphasize the need for playing clean football after a disastrous 2008 season.
The Badgers finished 40th nationally in fewest penalties with 5.31 per game (69 for 616 yards) and 104th nationally in turnovers with 30 (19 fumbles, 11 interceptions).
Wisconsin’s record: 7-6.
The Badgers cut down on their turnovers last season and finished 68th nationally with 24 (12 fumbles, 12 interceptions), but the penalty numbers were nearly identical.
Wisconsin finished tied for 28th nationally with 5.33 per game (69 for 616 yards). The one change was fewer pre-snap penalties, which were a plague on the offense in ’08.
Wisconsin’s record: 10-3.
Hoping to trim the number of penalties, the staff became more meticulous and demanding about how drills would be run in the offseason.
“I think it goes back again to January and winter conditioning,” Bielema said. “If we’re going to start a drill, I want it to start exactly where it’s supposed to start and end where it’s supposed to end… .
“During spring ball, they’ll be the first tell you—if you have a penalty, a lot of times I’ll make you log roll 100 yards at the end of practice for every penalty you had. Just reinforce in their mind that you can’t allow those things to happen.
“The cumulative effect (of penalties) is you can change the momentum of the game and you can lose a game by being stupid on how you perform.”
The players embraced the focus and gradually began policing themselves.
“If you’ve got to say something, you’ve got to say something,” senior guard John Moffitt said. “The best part is that once it is over it is over.”
Rather, it is about personnel doing the job properly.
“It is a big deal,” Moffitt said. “How many drives two years ago were just shot in the foot because of a penalty or the wrong alignment? It is amazing how the game can be so close and one small detail can change an entire game.
“If a team realizes that and respects that, you’re going to win the close ones… .
“I was part of it, too. I didn’t respect it either. I think we all realigned.”
Bielema loves to see the players apply peer pressure and, quite frankly, so do the players.
“It gets to the point where you get sick of hearing the coaches yell,” Konz said. “If it’s one of us, there is a sense of leadership and you’re going to be listening to your teammates.”