Wilson's play adds new dimension to Wisconsin
Russell Wilson's polished persona on the field mirrors his calm confidence off of it. Both are being tested this week.
The one-and-done quarterback for No. 7 Wisconsin has put up eye-popping numbers and emerged as one of the most valuable newcomers to any team in the country while the Badgers (4-0) have feasted on inferior nonconference foes.
Russellmania is in full force. And everyone in Madison has been downright jumpy when it comes to discussing Wisconsin's outlook with Wilson at the helm.
The crescendo should start to peak Saturday night when the Badgers host No. 8 Nebraska in the Cornhuskers (4-0) first Big Ten Conference game, and Wilson's performance will certainly set the tone for the rest of Wisconsin's season.
''We have to play great football,'' he said. ''It should be a great game, great atmosphere, and we're excited about it.''
Wilson's path to Wisconsin is unique.
He was a three-year starter at North Carolina State who graduated a year early, opted to play pro baseball, wasn't welcomed back to the Wolfpack and took advantage of an NCAA transfer rule to be immediately eligible to play for the Badgers.
Wisconsin had a big need after two-year starter Scott Tolzien graduated and the Badgers were growing impatient waiting for one of a group of unproven backups to emerge.
''Transferring is never something that you necessarily want to do going into things. But I think the best thing I can say about it all is, I got my degree from N.C. State, and I graduated early. I graduated in three years, and that's not easy to do,'' Wilson said. ''That's one thing that I'm proud about.''
The Badgers insisted there was never doubt Wilson would fit in with their group, which prides itself in a low-key, blue-collar approach and traditionally has had a power running attack to match. Running back Montee Ball said his only worry was that Wilson wouldn't be able to quickly learn the offense.
''I had a little doubt about how fast he was going to pick up the playbook, because he didn't have that much time as usually a lot of people do. But he did a great job with that. He was really focused on getting the job done,'' Ball said.
Wilson did more than just learn to hand the ball off right, left and up the middle. When he stepped on the field in fall camp, he immediately took over a leadership role missing after Tolzien graduated and the left side of the offensive line departed for the NFL. Wilson's new teammates elected him as a captain after just a few weeks together.
''Right off the bat he was teaching us backs how to run our routes and stuff like that, how to take the handoffs and stuff like that,'' Ball said. ''He kind of took us under his wing, and we made sure that we paid a lot of attention to what he was telling us because obviously he's a great player, very intelligent man, and is going to take this team to the promised land.''
Wilson is second in the country in pass efficiency (218.4) and fifth in completion percentage (75.8 percent) - ahead of the school marks set by Tolzien last year.
He's thrown for three touchdowns in three straight games and has 11 this season, marking the first time in school history that a Badgers quarterback has thrown multiple TD passes over four consecutive starts. If Wilson continues at this pace, he'll surpass John Stocco's 2005 school mark of 21 TD passes before November.
''He brings versatility to the offense. They've been known as a running team, but he's a great passer and he balances them out. That's going to make the challenge hard for us,'' Nebraska cornerback Corey Cooper said. ''He's right at the top of the line when it comes to college quarterbacks.''
Cooper, who switched from safety to cornerback against Wyoming, will be one of the players who'll have to come up big if the Huskers hope to slow Wilson.
''On film he's very efficient. Any time you have a great running game, if you have a quarterback with as good an arm as he is, you're going to have a good throwing game, too, because they force you to defend the run and put a lot of pressure on your defensive backs,'' defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. ''You need them in run support but at the same time they have to be disciplined in their keys and cover guys.''
Wilson keeps saying all the right things, downplaying his impact for the Badgers or his potential to win individual awards like the Heisman Trophy.
''My main focus is winning every single week, doing what it takes as a quarterback to help my team win, whatever it is,'' Wilson said. ''(Personal accolades) mean something down the road, that kind of stuff, but I'm not really focused on that kind of stuff at all, to be honest with you. The main thing is winning. Playing quarterback, you always want to win. I'm competitive as anything. That competitive nature is instilled in me, so I want to be the best.''
And Wilson stays grounded, never more apparent than when he was asked whether pro baseball or pro football was in his future.
''Right now, Nebraska is,'' Wilson said. ''And that's the only thing that really matters.''