Valai’s play looms large for No. 4 Wisconsin
Senior safety Jay Valai has been a starter for three years at
Wisconsin, and at first glance, there’s not a lot that jumps
He’s only 5-foot-9 and has just two interceptions over 47 games.
His career has been marred by injuries, illness and a one-time
reputation of being a dirty player.
Through it all, Valai has emerged as one of the leaders on
Wisconsin’s defense and helped bolster a secondary that had
struggled in his first three years.
Valai understands the underdog TCU’s mentality. The Horned Frogs
(12-0), ranked No. 3, face the fourth-ranked Badgers (11-1) in the
Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
”Some teams hate on who they played, but talent is talent once
you get on the field,” Valai said. ”TCU played some of the best
teams in the country, they beat a good Oregon State team, they beat
Utah when Utah was ranked so high. People forget that so
Valai has had numerous injuries, including at least two serious
concussions, a hyperextended right knee, hurt ribs and a case of
swine flu when it hit the Madison campus hard last year. He lost
more than 20 pounds while being sick.
”It beat my body down,” Valai said. ”One thing I focused on
was just getting better, week by week, deal with the pain, deal
with the injuries and just keep going.”
Valai’s reputation also grew as a potentially dirty player after
two scrutinized helmet-to-helmet hits in 2008. One was against Ohio
State and the other knocked the ‘M’ decal off of Minnesota running
back Shady Salamon’s helmet in a hit that’s still on YouTube.
”He definitely puts a hat on you,” Buckeyes receiver DeVier
Posey said this year. ”He definitely hits hard.”
While those type of hits have drawn the ire from opposing Big
Ten fans, he worked hard with the coaching staff to change his
technique to favor form tackling over brute strength.
Valai acknowledged last year’s illness also changed his
aggression level somewhat, and that he needed to learn to be more
precise to become a better player.
Wisconsin’s play has improved, too, as Valai became a reliable
defender in a secondary that’s improved significantly from last
year’s 10-3 campaign despite no major influx of new talent.
And the defining play of Valai’s career at Wisconsin likely
won’t be remembered by his hitting ability.
On Sept. 18, Valai blocked Arizona State’s extra-point attempt
with just over 4 minutes to go in the fourth quarter and the
Badgers ran out the clock for a 20-19 victory.
Quarterback Scott Tolzien said after the game that Valai’s play
could be a springboard for the rest of the season. Wisconsin went
on a seven-game conference winning streak after losing to Michigan
But the streak that included a win over then-No. 1 Ohio State
wouldn’t have mattered in the Rose Bowl chase if the Badgers had
lost to Arizona State because overall winning percentage was one of
”You look at plays from a lot of different teams and there’s a
lot of, I don’t know if I would say luck, but big plays that could
swing one way or another,” Tolzien said. ”I think when you put in
that hard work and everyone believes, I do think that it’s
contagious and I think it pays off.”
It’s paid off for Valai and the team keeps reaping those
”I look around and see my guys around me playing great football
and at the end of the season, I’ve never been part of a team with
the snowball effect going this way so hard,” Valai said.
”Turnovers happen, turnovers happen and we’re flying around,
having fun on the football field.
”The growth of our team in general has been an amazing thing
and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”