MADISON, Wis. — Jeff Duckworth won’t disclose how far from 100 percent he actually feels these days. The bulging discs in his lower back surfaced a couple of years ago, and he never knows the excruciating pain levels he’ll feel when he wakes up each morning.
“The only thing I can really get done is a fusion, which I don’t want to do,” Duckworth said. “I’ve gotten a couple injections and stuff. It comes and goes.”
Playing football, he is well aware, is probably the least helpful solution to overcoming the body aches. But Duckworth, a redshirt senior for the University of Wisconsin, also knows he has only a handful of opportunities remaining to suit up at wide receiver for the Badgers. And so, he continues to roll out of bed and battle the flare-ups for the few chances he receives to make an impact on the field.
Saturday provided one of those opportunities, and Duckworth nearly played the role of hero. He caught a 51-yard pass from quarterback Joel Stave down to the Arizona State 26-yard line with 1:01 remaining in the game. It marked just his second catch of the season, but it also put Wisconsin in field goal range while trailing 32-30.
“He made a great throw, great back shoulder throw,” Duckworth said. “I was pretty much covered and he kind of threw me open. I was able to break a tackle. I knew pre-snap that I was the main read once they went man coverage. I just tried to make a play.”
Of course, the final 18 seconds will now live in infamy because the Badgers ran out of time before they could spike the ball in a disputed finish involving botched officiating. Still, Duckworth’s catch provided a bright spot for a wide receiver corps in need of a spark.
For a second straight season, Wisconsin has struggled to establish consistency among wide receivers after top threat Jared Abbrederis. Abbrederis has caught 16 balls for 271 yards and three touchdowns. The rest of the team’s wide receivers combined have caught 11 passes for 151 yards and no touchdowns.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen would love to see Duckworth emerge as a go-to option, though he recognizes injuries may limit him in those efforts.
“Duck’s challenge for playing time is just simply being healthy, and that’s been the challenge,” Andersen said. “He fights now. He works at it, he really does, and he tries to do everything to get back. He’s just another young man that has a lot of miles on him, if you will, and we try to strategically condition him and take care of him and get him in shape.
“He does the same thing. He really works at it. But he would be on the field more if we could consistently get him healthy and get him out there practicing. He made a big-time play in a big-time moment. There’s no doubt about it, and it was great to see him be able to make that play at that special time.”
In his entire career, Duckworth has caught 29 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns. But he certainly is no stranger to shining in the biggest moments. Most Wisconsin fans will remember him for making a marvelous catch in traffic to help Wisconsin secure a Big Ten championship against Michigan State in 2011.
With Michigan State leading, 39-34, and just over four minutes remaining in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin faced a fourth-and-six from the Spartans’ 43-yard line.
Quarterback Russell Wilson took the snap, rolled to his left and heaved a pass across the field to Duckworth, who secured the ball in his chest between two defenders. When Duckworth hit the turf, he’d collected a game-saving 36-yard catch for a first down.
On the very next play, Badgers running back Montee Ball punched in a seven-yard touchdown to give Wisconsin the lead for good in a 42-39 victory that sent the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. And Duckworth’s catch would carry on in Badgers lore for years.
In the two seasons since the catch, Duckworth has tried to further his reputation as a dependable receiver. The chances, however, haven’t come often. Last season, he caught just nine passes for 60 yards with one touchdown while constantly battling pain.
Duckworth said the worst flare-up involving his spinal discs came the week of last season’s Michigan State game. He could barely practice and played sparingly in the game, recording no catches. During fall camp this season, he was again limited by his back injury and missed practice time.
“It’s been real frustrating,” Duckworth said. “But I’m mostly just trying to help the team in any way I can. Help those young guys learn and stuff. Just be ready whenever my number is called.”
When his number finally was called on Saturday, Duckworth delivered, shedding his would-be tackler at midfield and pushing into Arizona State territory. After the big catch, Wilson even tweeted Duckworth’s name to his 368,000 followers, making Duckworth a minor social media star for the moment.
“Duck just makes plays when it’s time to make them,” Stave said. “He’s done that for years. When the big moment comes, he’s always been there to step up and make a big play. So we have a lot of confidence going to him, calling his number when you need to, and he stepped up.”
Duckworth hopes to have more opportunities on the big stage this season, putting his pain on hold to play the sport he loves for a few more games.