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.''