Joe Stellmacher is grateful for Mondays. In each of the past two weeks, the University of Wisconsin football team has taken Monday off, giving a battered and bruised — but winning team — an opportunity to lick its wounds before the next Saturday rolls around.
“After the Minnesota game, I was hurting still. I felt like I was in a car accident after the game,” Stellmacher said, referring to the Badgers’ 38-34 win in the Metrodome Oct. 15. “… Throughout the rest of the week my body got fresher and fresher.”
Typically, the Badgers don full pads Tuesdays and Wednesdays for full-contact drills and scrimmage sessions. Last week, however, coach Barry Alvarez elected to ease the physical toll, with the team practicing in shoulder pads and helmets for lighter hitting days on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I’ve altered practice again this week to try to help our guys,” Alvarez said Monday. “I’m sensitive to the length of the season and how beat up a lot of our people are. You want them to be fresh down the stretch.”
Wisconsin has built a 7-1 overall record and a 4-1 Big Ten mark despite absorbing a glut of injuries, especially on defense.
Stellmacher, UW’s starting strong safety, missed nearly three games with a shoulder “stinger” and has played the past two games despite recurring stingers in each shoulder. Free safety Roderick Rogers also played through a shoulder stinger in Saturday’s 31-20 over Purdue — and returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown. Linebacker Mark Zalewski is doubtful for Saturday and the myriad injuries to UW’s defensive line have been well-documented.
“You got to go out there and battle,” Stellmacher said. “Everyone in the league is probably banged up a little bit. But you’ve just got to play through it and be mentally strong.”
The lighter schedule has helped.
“I thought we really practiced well last week,” quarterback John Stocco said. “It seemed like we had a bounce in our step.”
With three league games remaining, including Saturday’s contest at Illinois (2-5, 0-4), the Badgers are tied for the conference lead with Penn State. Seven teams are within a game of first place in the loss column, however, and all of them will have a bye week before their Big Ten year is complete — except Wisconsin. The Badgers one break comes Nov. 19, a week before traveling to Hawaii to close out the regular season. The only other Big Ten team that has to play 11 straight games is Purdue, which opened the season with a bye.
“We still have a goal in mind and we’re trying to win a Big Ten title,” tailback Brian Calhoun said. “So whether the guys are tired or not we got to pull together.”
Having Monday off not only helps the Badgers recuperate physically, it helps alleviate any mental or emotional strain. Three of UW’s four conference wins, after all, have been second-half comebacks.
“I don’t think guys are worn out,” Calhoun said. “I think a lot of guys might be a little bit mentally tired because we’ve had a lot of close games.”
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mike Newkirk concurred.
“It’s just kind of a mental break more than anything physical,” Newkirk said. “You see guys banged up and stuff like that. Sometimes it’s nice to just be able to step back and just relax for a day and not have to worry about the football part of it.”
Young and restless
If Newkirk had it his way, however, he would still be practicing Mondays. Last year, during his first fall training camp, whenever the team would take a break from end-of-practice conditioning, Newkirk took it upon himself to run hills at the Bishop O’Connor Center.
“Myself, I don’t really like to take a break that much,” Newkirk said. “Although I’m young to the program, so everything’s exciting to me. Hopefully it stays that way, which I anticipate that it will.”
The past two weeks have been a change of pace for Calhoun. In the first six games this season, UW made a point of getting him involved early and often. As a result, he was averaging 16.2 carries and 73.8 yards before halftime.
In the first 30 minutes at Minnesota, however, Calhoun ran seven times for 14 yards. In the first half against Purdue, he had seven carries for 16 yards.
“Our mentality is to establish the run week-in and week-out,” Calhoun said. “And obviously we didn’t do a good job of it the last two weeks.”
In each of those games, however, UW came out throwing against defenses it felt would be more susceptible to the pass. And the Badgers had limited first-half possessions against teams that had success running the football.
This week may be a return to normal. Illinois has the third-worst-ranked run defense in the nation, allowing 226.7 rushing yards per game.
Every week the Badgers talk about correcting mistakes and playing better against that Saturday’s opponent…
Can they really remain focused on Illinois, though? The Illini have lost five straight games and have been out-scored 195-44 in four Big Ten losses, including a 63-10 throttling from Penn State last week. And next week UW faces the Nittany Lions on the road, in what is shaping up as a Big Ten-championship bout.
“Illinois, people can say whatever they want, but they are still a Division I team in the Big Ten just like us,” Newkirk said. “And any team can be beaten on any day. So we’re going to need to go out there and take care of our business and treat it just as if it was a Michigan or an Ohio State.”