Bielema changes format of spring game

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema has bagged the idea of his offensive and defensive starters competing against each other in the spring game after just one season.

Bielema told reporters Monday that when his team takes the field this Saturday for its annual spring game, the No. 1 offense won’t compete against Wisconsin’s top defensive unit, and vice versa.

“We’ll go ones against everybody else,” Bielema said. “It’s ones against the world. There were some games this weekend I caught on the Big Ten Network that split up the teams. I just want the continuity to be the ones working together.”

Judging from last year’s game, Bielema’s decision appears to be a smart one.

Last season, with the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense competing, a total of three points were scored on 23 offensive possessions. Wisconsin committed four turnovers and never made it past the 18-yard line. Punter Brad Nortman actually punted 12 times.

Wisconsin’s quarterbacks went a combined 22 of 61 with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a fumble.

Bielema certainly will be hoping for a better showing from his quarterbacks this spring. Joel Stave and Joe Brennan are the only quarterbacks healthy enough to compete in the contest, and Stave worked last week with the No. 1 offense.

“I think those two had a nice spring,” Bielema said. “I want them to be better. Stave has really, really shown me from day one to where we’re at, he’s gotten better every day.”

Bielema said Saturday’s game would consist of four quarters with live punting but no kickoffs.

The only player medically cleared to compete that won’t participate is running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season.

“When you see him run in practice, you’ll know why he doesn’t need to get hit,” Bielema said. “He’ll take some shots in the fall. … Montee is our hardest worker. I don’t feel it’s necessary to take him to the ground.”

Abbrederis staying as punt returner: Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis ranked third in the county in punt return average last season, at 15.75 yards per return. And his knack for making plays on punts is something Badgers fans should expect to see more of in 2012, even as Abbrederis’ workload at wide receiver increases.

“I think if I took him off punt return, he’d be the first guy in my office asking to do it,” Bielema said. “I think he really enjoys that. I do want to see certain guys back there in kick return, including Montee (Ball) and Melvin (Gordon). Both guys are strong and physical.”

Abbrederis led Wisconsin in total receiving yards last season. He caught 55 passes for 933 yards with eight touchdowns. He also returned 28 kickoffs, sharing kickoff return duties with James White.

Improving rush defense a priority: Last season, Wisconsin ranked 60th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 152.8 yards per game. That is a number Bielema hopes his team can improve on in 2012, and he sounded optimistic based on what he’d seen in spring practice.

“Off the two big scrimmages, I would say that 90 percent of the plays have been great,” Bielema said. “I think (defensive coordinator) Chris (Ash) brought up a great stat this morning. The defense overall had 147 yards rushing against them — 127 of them came on four plays. Two of them were really structural issues where the offense did a nice job of getting in a formation that caught leverage of our defense. There was one other one that we had a missed tackle that would have been an eight-yard game that turned into a 44-yard gain.”

This spring, the Badgers have been without their leading tackler in linebacker Mike Taylor, who is sitting out with an injury. But he’ll return in the fall, along with fellow linebacker Chris Borland. The two combined for 293 tackles last season.

“Our defense I think is made up a lot of no-name guys,” Bielema said. “Just a bunch of guys that go to work and line up and do what they’re supposed to do.”

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