Some lessons are more obvious — and painful — than others.
Football coaches like to turn mistakes into teaching moments, but that's never an issue for University of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst with senior quarterback Scott Tolzien. Usually, Tolzien knows what went wrong and what he should have done differently, before Chryst can get to it.
"I think he learns from everything," Chryst said. "I admire that. He learns from things that aren't so obvious."
So nobody had to point out the elephant in the room a year ago, after Tolzien's two interceptions were returned for touchdowns in UW's 31-13 loss at Ohio State. It was the start of a rough two-game stretch for Tolzien, who had five interceptions — nearly half of his season total of 11 — in back-to-back losses, including against Iowa the next week.
"Those are kind of obvious," Chryst said. "Don't throw two pick-sixes. Let me write that down."
The more important lesson, as Tolzien gets ready to face the top-ranked Buckeyes on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, is figuring out why they happened.
The first came with the Badgers driving in a scoreless game. Tolzien threw high and late down the middle, a recipe for disaster. After getting decent time to throw initially, the pocket collapsed and Tolzien was about to absorb a hit.
"That's one of the first things you're taught as a quarterback, you never want to throw the ball up in the middle when there's all kind of junk in there," Tolzien said. "It was good teaching. Let's not have it happen again this year."
The pass was picked off by safety Kurt Coleman and returned 89 yards for a score, leading to another key point: great defenses, with the speed, athleticism and discipline of Ohio State, make you pay for mistakes.
"They adjust as well as anyone," Tolzien said of the Buckeyes. "You call one play and then you call it again the next time and all of a sudden, they've got it covered."
If once wasn't enough, Tolzien had the point drilled home again early in the third quarter. He forced a pass into tight coverage on the sideline. Linebacker Jermale Hines was falling back and Tolzien thought he could drop it over him. But Hines made a nice play, tipping the ball with his right hand before gathering it in and returning it 32 yards for a touchdown.
"It's one thing if the first one happens," UW coach Bret Bielema said on Monday. "But don't let it affect you in a way where (it happens again). ... I think he learned himself how to turn those situations from negatives into positives."
The two interception returns for touchdowns set the tone in a strange game the Badgers dominated statistically but lost thoroughly. They held the ball for 42 minutes, 47 seconds, had an 89-40 edge in plays and double the total yards (368-184). But it didn't matter due to three touchdowns scored without their defense on the field, including a 96-yard kickoff return.
Bielema hopes the last two games are all the evidence his players need to believe they can win this week. They led 17-13 in 2008 in Madison before then-freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor directed an 80-yard drive and scored on an 11-yard touchdown run with 1:08 left, when the UW defense couldn't get lined up properly.
"They realize that they've been in position to win the game against a very good football team, a team that's been at the highest level of success in our league," Bielema said. "I think they probably learned what they can't do, better than ever (last year)."
Tolzien took his lessons to heart. He hasn't thrown an interception since the second game and has two this season in 132 attempts. The offense has gone four straight games without a turnover, the first time it has done that in one season since 1988.
"That's what it's all about as the quarterback, managing the game and taking care of the ball," Tolzien said. "I'm starting to learn as I get older, how it does hold the momentum in your favor. ... Punting is not necessarily a bad play when you take care of the ball, that's a heck of a lot better ... than giving them a gift."
Tolzien is not the only offensive player with something to prove this week. The line allowed six sacks, wide receiver Isaac Anderson had two drops — one that would have been a touchdown — and tailback John Clay had 20 carries for 59 yards.
But with lessons learned, it's time for everyone to look ahead.
"We all know what happened," Chryst said. "Like any game, you hope to learn from it and grow from it. There's nothing Scotty can do or any of the guys can do with that game. You hope it's like a lot of the lessons you learn through the season.
"We're not going to re-play last year's game. You don't want to. It doesn't matter. The focus has to be this week, this team, this game and this opportunity."