MADISON - The special teams play from Wisconsin nearly cost the Badgers the game against Arizona State on a number of occasions. It's funny, then, how a couple of special teams plays turned out winning the game for the favored Badgers.
After the UW defense surrendered a nine-play, 77-yard touchdown drive to the feisty Sun Devils that seemed destined to take the game into overtime late in the fourth quarter, Jay Valai made a play a fifth-year senior should.
On the seemingly innocuous extra point attempt, Valai broke on the ball perfectly, took a correct angle and blocked what would have been a game-tying point after touchdown.
Instead the Badgers protected their one-point lead and snuck out of Camp Randall with a 20-19 victory, improving their record to 3-0 along the way.
"In my mind I'm thinking I've got to make the play," Valai said after his late-game heroics. "A lot of guys don't pay attention to every play. I think one thing the coaches drill into our heads is that this could be the play, this could be the play. In my head I'm thinking I've got to make this play.
"I saw the hole, went over it, God lifted me up in the air and I blocked it."
Coincidentally, another special teams play saved the day earlier in the game. And it came on a play where execution was probably the furthest from where it needed to be.
After Lance Kendricks reeled in a Scott Tolzien touchdown pass with just 10 seconds remaining in the opening half giving the Badgers a 10-6 lead, it looked as though the Sun Devils would try to regroup inside the locker room.
Following the touchdown Philip Welch kicked the ball deep instead of squibbing it to an ASU return unit that had gashed the Badgers throughout the first half. As a result, Middlebrooks fielded the deep kick, broke through the initial wall of defenders and strode into the open field.
After making a cut towards the sideline around midfield, it looked as though Middlebrooks was destined to put his team on top with the Sun Devils second kick return for a touchdown.
Instead, two redshirt freshmen wound up in the right place at the right time.
Dezmen Southward got a hand on Middlebrooks, just enough to slow him down for Shelton Johnson to track him down at the one yard line as time expired. After review, the play stood and the Badgers paraded into the locker with the lead.
"I was just running trying to get to the ball," Johnson said after the game. "Dez slowed him up enough that I could get to him and make the play. I was thinking, 'No, don't let this happen again.' That would have been really deflating going into halftime.
"I was just hoping I got to him, and thankfully I did."
The play proved to be quite the momentum swing. One more yard and ASU would have hit the locker room as a likely 13-10 leader with the ball coming its way to start the second half.
Instead, UW maintained the edge and lead it would never relinquish.
John Clay rushed for more than 100-yards (123) for the ninth consecutive game and Kendricks (seven receptions, 131 yards, one touchdown) picked up the slack for the injured wide receiver starters Nick Toon and David Gilreath.
Tolzien, who struggled a week ago, finished 19-of-25 for 246 yards and a touchdown. The Badgers never turned the ball over.
Arizona State, a team that looked the part against UW, was paced by running back Deantre Lewis who finished the game with nine carries for 122 yards, the first 100-yard rusher against Wisconsin since Ryan Mathews did so when Fresno State came to town last September.
Steven Threet, who had beaten the Badgers once before, finished 21-of-33 for 211 yards.
Though he led his team to the end zone late in the game and looked to position his team for the game-tying extra point, it wasn't enough for the Sun Devils.
Wisconsin bent, but never broke.
"You kind of welcome those adverse situations as long as ultimately you're winning the game," Tolzien said. "Even if you don't you have to learn from it. You need to learn that it's a game of momentum and at times you're going to lose the momentum and there's a challenge, but that's the great thing about the game.
"I think that's why guys play the game, for those situations and to step up and execute."