Super Bowl XLVIII shaping up to be a Wisconsin Badger Bowl

Monday January 27th, 2014

In 2011, Russell Wilson (right) and Montee Ball were nearly unstoppable for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

NEW YORK CITY -- Nowhere is the fervor for Super Bowl XLVIII whipped any higher, of course, than in the football-mad states of Colorado and Washington, where the Broncos have gone 15 years since taking part in their most recent Super Bowl parade and the Seahawks have never had reason to plan one in the franchise's 38-season history.

But if there were a third state that could rightfully claim this glamor game, it wouldn't be New York or New Jersey, the event's ultra-competitive co-hosts who are practically elbowing each other out of the way for attention this week. Somewhat fittingly, the NFL's first outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl is feeling a bit like a home game for the frost-covered football fans in Wisconsin, particularly those who bleed that familiar Badger red.

The Wisconsin contingent on the NFC champion Seahawks goes an impressive four deep and is led by none other than quarterback Russell Wilson, the former record-setting Badgers captain who spent one Rose Bowl-tripping season in Madison in 2011 as a high-profile transfer. But Denver has its headline Badger connection, too, with second-round running back Montee Ball making the game as a rookie, after earning All-America honors and posting 100-yard rushing games in three consecutive Rose Bowls for Wisconsin.

MORE COVERAGE: Super Bowl forecast | How Seahawks were built | How Broncos were built

A pair of Seattle reserves, safety Chris Maragos and linebacker O'Brien Schofield, are also ex-Badgers, as is successful Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who quarterbacked Wisconsin to the 1993 Big Ten title and the school's first Rose Bowl victory, rewriting UW's passing record book during his tenure in Madison.

"I think Super Bowl Sunday will have special meaning in Madison this year,'' said former Badgers head coach and current UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, reached late last week. "Our people are great football fans. They love their Badgers and they love the Packers and they love football. So when you have guys that you can root for, and you have some connection there, I think it makes the game that much more unique and special.

"We've never had more Badgers in a Super Bowl. When you can sit and watch the game and you're watching some guys who are special to you and who have done so much for the program, and they're all such good kids, it really adds so much to the game for me.''

Having lived in Madison from late 2008 through early '12, about five minutes from Camp Randall Stadium, I can attest to the level of local pride that exists for the Badgers and their recent run of producing NFL-ready players. And I well remember the buzz that was created when Wilson arrived in the summer of 2011, having graduated from North Carolina State in three years, with a year of remaining eligibility. There was some uncertainty about how quickly he could acclimate to his new surroundings in Wisconsin, but just as he did in Seattle as a rookie in 2012, Wilson blended in seamlessly.

"He comes in in the summer, and we start camp, and that's when your rookies have to dance for everyone in the locker room,'' Alvarez recalled. "And they were treating him like a rookie, because no one knew him. So he's out there dancing with the freshman, doing whatever else the rookies had to do. And he was doing it as a 22-year-old graduated senior. Three weeks later, he's voted one of our captains.''

Wilson and Ball bonded quickly as backfield mates, and they remain close friends today, with Ball leaning on Wilson at times last spring in the all-important pre-draft preparation phase. But as teammates for the last time, they sat side by side at the podium after Wisconsin's bitter 45-38 loss to Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl, with Wilson almost eerily predicting this week's championship opportunity. That game ended with the Badgers on the Ducks' 25-yard line, and Wilson unable to spike the ball in time for one last shot at a game-tying touchdown.

"I'm just so blessed to have been with these guys, with Montee and the rest of the team,'' Wilson said that day. "Every single day I've cherished, and every single moment is truly special. To lose the way we did is only going to make me stronger in the future and help me figure out something else down the road. Maybe win the Super Bowl. You never know.''

Well now. Indeed, you never know. But there were those who seemed to understand that Wilson's brief time in Madison would lead to greater things. I remember talking to a couple NFL scouts about Wilson in the spring of 2012, and mostly what I heard was that he had fourth- or fifth-round draft potential, and might max out as a career backup QB. But there were others who understood he had a skillset that fit the cliché about the sum of the parts adding up to greater than the whole.

FARRAR: Believe it: Wilson almost ended up in Denver, Manning almost ended up in Seattle

Some draft-related nuggets gleaned from Alvarez include:

-- He had to talk even Bevell into not getting too hung up on Wilson's lack of prototypical NFL height. "I can remember Darrell saying, 'Coach, no one that short [5-foot-10-ish] has ever made it as a quarterback.' I said, well this guy's special. His intangibles are off the charts. I told Darrell at the time, 'He'll make you a better coach.''' Seattle wound up selecting Wilson in the third round, 75th overall. And now he's the first quarterback of the celebrated Class of 2012 to reach the Super Bowl, winning 27 of his first 36 NFL starts in the process, more than any second-year quarterback ever.

-- Then-Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice was an early devotee of Wilson's and tried to lobby Chicago's draft decision-makers to take him, even as a Wildcat quarterback option behind Jay Cutler. "Mike believed in him and said he was trying to build a case for him in Chicago,'' Alvarez said. "He was saying he was trying to give him more value on our draft board, saying he could play Wildcat quarterback for you, or be a wing back.''

-- Alvarez said he "told anybody that would listen that they'd be foolish if they [didn't] take him and take him high in the draft. I felt so strongly about him because I watched him that whole year and he did everything right. If you remember, when he transferred here, the media said, 'Well this doesn't show confidence in your current quarterbacks. You could lose your quarterbacks, and he could create a problem.' I said, 'Are you kidding me? This is like hitting the lottery. Getting somebody of that caliber in your program is unbelievable.'''

In 2011, Wilson and Ball were nearly unstoppable for Wisconsin. Wilson broke the NCAA record for passer efficiency rating (191.78) and set the Badgers single-season passing yard mark (3,175) as well. Ball, as a junior, led the nation in rushing yards (1,923), tied Barry Sanders' single-season collegiate record with 39 touchdowns and was a Heisman finalist. As a senior in 2012, Ball broke the NCAA Division I-FBS mark for most career touchdowns with 83.

Ball's rookie season in Denver started with him struggling with fumbling problems -- including a Week 2 fumble in a win over the Giants at MetLife Stadium, site of Sunday's Super Bowl -- but he has progressed steadily since and had strong showings in relief of starter Knowshon Moreno during the Denver playoff drive.

"I'm on [the college football playoff] selection committee with Archie Manning, and the last two times I've seen him, he said Peyton [Manning] has really praised Montee and how he's come on and improved this season,'' Alvarez said. "He did have the ball security issues early on, but I think now they have real confidence in him. It's a perfect spot for him, being in Denver. He's got a great guy in front of him in Moreno, but with Montee there, they can always have a fresh back in the game.''

The Badgers will have more than a fresh back in this week's game. They've got Ball, one of the two starting quarterbacks, an offensive coordinator and a couple of key Seahawks reserves to root for. It's an embarrassment of riches for Wisconsin, in what shapes up to be something of a Super Badger Bowl.

"I have to admit, it doesn't hurt with all the kids you're recruiting,'' Alvarez said. "Anybody who has dreams of going on to college football and then playing in the NFL, just watch the Super Bowl. It's like free advertising for us.''

For Wisconsin, on this Super Bowl Sunday, it's product placement of the very best kind.

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