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

out.

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

quick.”

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

State.

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

the tiebreakers.

”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

benefits, too.

”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.”