They stood a few feet away from one another in the crush of postgame media, offering vastly different views on the same question.
Whose singular play on special teams was the most critical for the University of Wisconsin football team Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium?
Was it sophomore strong safety Shelton Johnson, whose hustle and speed prevented a kickoff return for a touchdown by Arizona State in the waning seconds of the first half?
Or was it senior strong safety Jay Valai, whose blocked conversion kick in the fourth quarter ultimately gave 11th-ranked UW its 20-19 non-conference triumph over the Sun Devils?
“I definitely have to say Jay’s, because if he didn’t make that play we’re probably still playing right now,” Johnson said.
After a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Cameron Marshall with 4 minutes, 9 seconds left, Arizona State lined up to tie the game with Thomas Weber, the 2007 Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s best kicker, doing the honors.
But Valai drove in from the left side, launched his 5-foot-9 frame into the air and somehow deflected the kick, allowing the Badgers to escape with a win on day when their special teams nearly hurt them as much as they helped against a two-touchdown underdog.
“Pre-snap, I sat down and said, ‘I’ve got to make this play,’ ” Valai said. “As a competitor, you’ve got to think that 24-7.”
Yet Valai will tell you his effort was overshadowed by what Johnson did with a little help from redshirt freshman free safety Dezmen Southward.
“Shelton Johnson’s play is probably the biggest play of the game, if you want to be real,” Valai said. “Shelton gave us the ability to live for what we did in the fourth quarter.”
Good point as well.
UW had just taken a 13-10 lead with 10 seconds remaining in the second quarter when it courted disaster.
Instead of a line-drive squib kick, junior Philip Welch launched a kickoff that wideout Kyle Middlebrooks immediately transformed into an adventure. He found a seam up the right sideline and appeared headed for a 96-yard touchdown return, especially after he shook off an attempted tackle by Southward just inside the 20.
“I was devastated,” said Southward, who pounded his fists into the turf in frustration.
But Middlebrooks had to slow up a bit to elude Southward, enabling Johnson to catch him from behind and bring him down at the 1 as time expired in the half.
“Dez slowing him down really did help me because it would have been a lot tougher had he hadn’t,” Johnson said.
Acceleration is one of Johnson’s gifts. UW coach Bret Bielema said Johnson first caught his eye at a practice last season when Johnson caught senior wideout David Gilreath — a speedster in his own right — from behind.
“I had a good angle on both of them,” Johnson said with a big laugh when that bit of history was broached. “Both are really fast guys.”
Outside of those two pivotal sequences, the Badgers were seriously outplayed on special teams.
Cornerback Omar Bolden returned a first-quarter kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, erasing a 3-0 deficit. Bolden zipped between Southward and redshirt freshman wideout Jared Abbrederis, then whizzed past Welch, seemingly untouched.
“Guys didn’t see where the return was going,” Southward explained. “He started off going one way and cut it back the other way, so we had a lot of guys cross-facing the wrong way. That’s something we’ll definitely get fixed.”
After the ensuing UW possession stalled, wideout Jamal Miles fielded a Brad Nortman punt at his 20, found a seam up the left side and outran everybody for an apparent 80-yard TD. An illegal block by safety Eddie Elder nullified the play, however.
“We knew they had very skilled players back there,” Bielema said, acknowledging that his coverage units have some flaws that need to be addressed.
“The sad thing is, special teams wise, we dominated the football game,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. “It was unbelievable the things we did on special teams.”
The blocked extra point was especially jarring for Erickson.
“In all my career I’ve never seen something like that,” said the man whose coaching career began in 1982 and includes six colleges and two NFL teams.
The Badgers were fortunate this day even though they may not have noticed at the time.
“I guess it was the best thing I didn’t make that tackle because there was no time left on the clock when (Johnson) made it,” Southward said of his role in the kickoff return to end the first half. “I guess they could have kicked a field goal. I guess everything worked out for the best.”
An otherwise forgettable day on special teams for UW was made memorable by two great moments.
“Coach B preaches that all the time,” Southward. “Any play can decide a game. We want to go out there every play, every game, with that mentality.”