Tom Oates: A one-and-done career that'll never be forgotten

2011-11-27T08:50:00Z 2012-05-23T17:57:56Z Tom Oates: A one-and-done career that'll never be forgottenTOM OATES | toates@madison.com | 608-252-6172 madison.com

Senior Day for Russell Wilson was much like his football career at the University of Wisconsin.

Short and oh-so-sweet.

After the Senior Day festivities at Camp Randall Stadium were over Saturday, after he had quarterbacked 15th-ranked UW to a shockingly easy 45-7 victory over 20th-ranked Penn State, after he had helped the Badgers qualify for the Big Ten Conference championship game and a shot at redemption against Michigan State, Wilson reflected on the final home game of a one-and-done UW career that will never be forgotten.

"This," he said, "is definitely one of the best things that's ever happened to me."

Right back at you, Russell.

Wilson, the transfer from North Carolina State, never stepped foot on the UW campus until July 1, but his arrival is one of the best things that ever happened to the Badgers. He supplied the program with a jolt of energy early in the season and was one of a tough-minded group of senior leaders who helped rally it after two devastating losses near midseason.

In a winner-take-all game with Penn State on Saturday, UW made history, getting to double-digit wins for a program-record third consecutive season, claiming the first Leaders Division title and earning a spot in the inaugural conference championship game next week at Indianapolis. Wilson isn't solely responsible for that, but it's fair to say none of it would have happened without him.

As Wilson played for the last time in front of a crowd that, much like his teammates and coaches, has come to admire him for his character as well as his talent, it seemed like he had been here five years instead of five months. He has certainly made more great memories in one season than most players make in five.

"He exceeded my expectations, definitely," senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "I knew he was a great player, but I have so much respect for Russell. I'm so glad he's here. Before we ran out from the tunnel, he was right in front of me and I just grabbed him by the shoulder pads real quick and said, ‘Hey, Russell, thanks for coming here.' "

It was the last time anyone in football gear had his arms around Wilson all day.

Indeed, it took only one half for everyone to see exactly what Wilson brought to UW this season. The Nittany Lions scored first, but the Badgers never blinked, roaring back to take a 28-7 halftime lead that, given Penn State's season-long inability to throw and catch, was insurmountable.

The central figure in just about everything UW did on offense in the first half was Wilson. He completed 15 of 21 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He ran five times for 44 yards, using not only his speed but his strength as he kept spinning out of tackles and stiff-arming defenders.

Facing a defense that had been primarily repsonsible for Penn State's 9-2 record coming into the game, the Badgers were 7-for-9 on third-down conversions in the half. Four of the conversions - three passing, one running - were by Wilson and three were by tailback Montee Ball, who has teamed with Wilson to give UW two Heisman Trophy candidates - at least they should be candidates - in the same backfield.

UW scored more points in the first half than Penn State had allowed in a game all season, which made the half a perfect measurement of Wilson's impact on the Badgers, on and off the field.

"He's meant a lot," cornerback Marcus Cormartie said. "Whenever somebody gets nominated as a captain and they've only been there for two months, you obviously have a lot of respect for him. He's just a great player, a very great player. The game of college football is all about moving the chains and that's what I think he does better than anybody in the country."

Wilson knew he would have to make some plays with his feet after watching video of Penn State's big, quick front four. Whether it was scrambling to throw or run, his work on two touchdown drives late in the first half all but killed the Nittany Lions' hopes.

"I had a feeling he might bring his double-A-plus game this week," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "I mean, he's good every week, but I think he just is a guy that thrives in this environment. He wanted to play on the big stage in Indianapolis and there was going to be nothing that denied him to get to where he wanted to be. Breaking tackles, making second efforts, getting first downs, it was just exceptional."

About as exceptional as the way Wilson has seamlessly fit in at UW. His humility, work ethic, leadership ability and, of course, talent quickly won over his teammates and the rest, as they say, is history.

"They accepted me right away and I'll remember that forever," Wilson said. "Obviously, we've got a lot more work to do. We believe that we have a chance to be great."

With Wilson at the controls for UW, anything seems possible.

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