UW football: Few penalties or turnovers is Badgers' recipe for success

toeing the line
2010-12-09T05:30:00Z 2010-12-10T13:25:01Z UW football: Few penalties or turnovers is Badgers' recipe for successTOM MULHERN | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

No penalty flags fly in January when the University of Wisconsin football players go through winter conditioning drills.

Yet to understand how the Badgers became the least-penalized team in college football, that's a good place to start.

"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," UW coach Bret Bielema said.

Same thing when the players run conditioning sprints. Players love to get a jump on the whistle, leaning forward and sometimes taking a step over the line. That doesn't cut it anymore, with consequences for players who don't follow the rules.

"If guys are over the line when we're running a sprint, if we're not finishing through the line ... during spring ball, (players) will 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," Bielema said of players lying on one end of the field and rolling over until reaching the other end.

"Just reinforce in their minds and condition that you can't allow those things to happen. If they do, the cumulative effect is you can change the momentum of the game and you can lose a game by being stupid on how you perform."

It's working. The Badgers average 2.92 penalties per game, fewest in the nation. They have 35 penalties for 358 yards in 12 games, an average of 29.8 yards per game, which is second-fewest.

Only twice in the past 24 years have they had fewer penalty yards, finishing with 275 in 11 games in 1995 and 329 in 11 in 1989.

But that's only half of the discipline formula that has helped UW go 11-1 and earn a spot against Texas Christian in the Rose Bowl.

The Badgers have committed only nine turnovers this season, tied with Iowa for fewest in the country. Their turnover margin of plus-1.17 per game is tied for third nationally.

"The whole game is about possessing the football," UW defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. "We're taking it away now and the offense is protecting it. With our ability to run the football and, for the most, part prevent big plays on defense, that's huge when you're possessing the ball."

Especially with a prolific offense that set a school record with 520 points, and is averaging 43.3 points per game, which would also be a record.

"That's how we win games here," senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "We might not have the most talented team always on the field, but that's our recipe for success, to play smart football, disciplined football and tough football."

The Badgers averaged 572 penalty yards in Bielema's first four seasons. The low point was the 25-24 loss to Michigan State in 2008. The Badgers had 12 penalties, including eight for 66 yards in the fourth quarter as they lost an 11-point lead. One of the costliest was an unsportsmanlike call against Bielema for arguing with an official.

The coaches attempted to make limiting penalties a bigger focus going into the 2009 season

"When a guy does hold a guy in practice, when a guy has a (pass interference), we call him out on it," Doeren said. "We don't ignore it because there wasn't a flag. We make a big deal about it when it happens, say, ‘You can't do that, it's going to be a flag on game day.' It's enforced."

But in 2009, not much changed. The Badgers had 69 penalties for 616 yards each of the last two seasons.

It wasn't until the players got fully on board this season that it started to make a difference. Senior left guard John Moffitt said there was not as much respect two years ago for the importance of details.

"I was part of it, too, and I didn't respect it," Moffitt said. "I think we all realigned. Last year the coaches made a point of doing all the little things right and the details. Like (Bielema) said, lining up on the line when we run sprints, that makes a difference. The little things really do turn into the big ones."

The best teams are usually the ones in which players self-regulate. During the Wednesday practice before the Northwestern game, a wide receiver and defensive back got into a scuffle. Bielema was furious because it interrupted the flow of practice. Yet he was thrilled to hear a comment between two offensive linemen that, "this is unacceptable, we're supposed to be practicing."

"When guys are doing that kind of stuff, if you have to say something, you have to say something," Moffitt said.

It's no different with turnovers, with older players sending the message that they won't be tolerated.

"You learn those things at a young age," Tolzien said, "how important that is, a missed alignment, an interception, a fumble, whatever the case may be."

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