Mid-season football awards

MADISON - As the Wisconsin football team prepares for its final four games, thought the bye week was a perfect time to unleash the annual mid-season awards.
All three staff writers (Jon McNamara, Jordan Schelling and Tom Lea) dished out awards for various accomplishments thus far.
Offensive player of the year so far:
McNamara: A unit with a wealth of talent, this is a difficult question but I'll go with Wisconsin's big junior tailback. Though he's endured a good deal of criticism, John Clay (13 scores and 110.9 yards per game) came through for the Badgers in their two biggest wins of the season. Though everyone in Madison would love to see him play at a lighter weight, Clay has moved the ball for UW and has his team in a position to play in a BCS game at the end of the season.
Schelling: Scott Tolzien - It all starts with the offensive line up front, and within that line, the left side is the key to the Badgers' success. Behind them, John Clay and James White make things happen in the run game. But without Scott Tolzien's poise and leadership as the Wisconsin signal caller, none of that would matter. Tolzien has shown in the last two weeks just how much he's improved from his first season as a starter, and without his strong performances, the Badgers would not have beaten Ohio State or Iowa in consecutive weeks.
Lea: Over the past two weeks, the Wisconsin football team has laid the blueprint to make 2010 a special season. It should come as no surprise then, considering this year is reminiscent of the Alvarez Rose Bowl years, that the offensive line has really exerted its will. As the leaders of the veteran unit, both Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt have elevated their games and helped dominate OSU and Iowa defensive fronts. The big guys up front don't get enough credit for their play. Without them, Clay and company would struggle to do the things they've don't to this point.
Defensive player of the year so far:
McNamara: J.J. Watt's name obviously came to mind first but after further examination, my vote goes to Blake Sorensen and his team-leading 48 tackles. Filling in for an injured Chris Borland, the senior has been exceptional and played his best game in a Badger uniform when Wisconsin defeated then-No. 1 Ohio State earlier in the year. Dave Doeren's defense hasn't lost a step with Sorensen's play at linebacker.
Schelling: J.J. Watt - Without the junior defensive end from Pewaukee, the Badgers would have no pass rush. Even with double and triple teams coming his way on a consistent basis, along with teams scheming around him, J.J. Watt continues to dominate opponents, put up impressive numbers, make big plays in crucial moments, and earn recognition for doing so. This week, Watt received three weekly awards for his performance at Iowa, and it seems safe to assume some postseason hardware could be headed his direction this year.
Lea: Watt has been nothing short of spectacular this season. He will likely finish as a first-team All-Big Ten selection and he will have earned that distinction. He's so intuitive as a football player and his relentless motor separates his ability from other players in the league and country. For a defense that lacks a high number of playmakers, where would it be without the likes of Watt.
Special teams player of the year so far:
McNamara: Philip Welch has quietly had a great season for Wisconsin. He's been consistent on field goals -- 9 for 12 with all three misses coming from 40 yards or more -- and has put the ball in the end zone on kickoffs.
Schelling: David Gilreath - Finally, on a consistent basis, Gilreath looks like a true threat every time he is on the receiving end of a kickoff. While his punt returns (fair catches) leave something to be desired, Gilreath has given the Badgers something they've lacked in the return game in recent years as someone who truly could take any given kick return back for a touchdown. He made it look easy against Ohio State, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see another one coming in the season's final four games.
Lea: I've also been pretty impressed with the play of David Gilreath, particularly after his concussion. He's playing at the highest level of his career and he's doing it with authority. Really, it's impressive to see what he's been able to accomplish with a couple of healthy feet. He'll be the team's biggest asset the remainder of the season on the special teams units.
Assistant coach of the year so far:
McNamara: Chris Ash has done a superior job in his first year at UW. He's taken an average group of cornerbacks and has them playing at a high level. One big move was bumping Devin Smith, a starter in 2010, to the third corner role in favor of starters Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus, who's having a solid junior season. Ash has also done a great job molding Aaron Henry, who arrived on campus as a corner, into a very effective safety.
Schelling: Chris Ash - Everyone likes to talk about the Wisconsin offensive and defensive lines, the running backs, receivers, tight ends, quarterback and linebackers. But the secondary continues to be one of the team's most underrated position groups. Their best performance of the season came on the Badgers' final defensive stand at Iowa, as they provided the coverage needed for J.J. Watt to get to Ricky Stanzi for the game-clinching sack. Ash's work with the Badgers' secondary has made it into a formidable unit that has played as large a role as any other part of the team in getting them to where they are now.
Lea: While I'm very high on Ash myself, I'm going to have to say Paul Chryst gets my award. Over the past two games, UW's offensive coordinator has called the two best games of his career at Wisconsin. Of course he just calls the plays and its on the players to execute them, but he's put his team in a great position to have success with his wit and intelligence, particularly over the past two weeks.
Best game:
McNamara: Wisconsin's win over Ohio State was simply one of the best sports moments at the University of Wisconsin ... ever. Hats off to Bret Bielema and the entire staff for their game plan and ability to get their players focused.
Schelling: 31-30 victory over Iowa - Sure, everyone will remember the night the Badgers knocked off the nation's No. 1 team on national television in impressive and dominating fashion. But it would not have meant nearly as much had Wisconsin not come back the next week with an equally impressive performance in Iowa City. Bret Bielema's squad went into Kinnick Stadium undermanned and still came away with a thrilling one-point victory, making a handful of bold moves along the way. As they carried the Heartland Trophy off the field that afternoon, the Badgers added a second program-defining victory in as many weeks.
Lea: From an atmosphere perspective, nothing will even come close to the UW-Ohio State game. But from an importance perspective, I don't think any game will really rival the win at Iowa. With seven starters nicked up or injured during the game and a host of other players sidelined, I still have to sit down and figure out how the Badgers beat Iowa, on the road, in a hostile environment. If UW runs the table the rest of the way and makes it to the BCS promised land, it can be directly traced to its win at Iowa in mid-October.
Best play:
McNamara: Brad Nortman's fake punt against Iowa kept his team in the game and continued the eventual game winning drive for the Badgers. The smile on Bielema's face moments after said it all; the Hawkeye grad made an exceptional play call when his team needed it the most.
Schelling: David Gilreath kick return touchdown vs. OSU - After suffering a brutal hit on a punt return against San Jose State, it was unclear whether David Gilreath would return a kick or punt again in his collegiate career. On the opening kickoff against then-No. 1 Ohio State, he did far more than that. Gilreath took it back 96 yards, electrifying a sellout crowd at Camp Randall Stadium and sparking the Badgers' 31-18 victory over the Buckeyes.
Lea: It's not talked about at all, but I'm going to say the play immediately prior to the fake punt at Iowa. If you remember, newly minted center Bill Nagy had an errant snap to Tolzien, standing in the shotgun formation. When so many bad things could have happened in that instance, Tolzien coolly picked up the loose ball and delivered a back-foot throw to Isaac Anderson. The play didn't result in a first down, but it did allow UW to call the famous fake punt that ensured the life of the drive, one that would eventually turn into a game-winning touchdown score. I'd be willing to bet a lot that had Tolzien taken a sack in that previous play, UW isn't calling a fake punt.
Biggest surprise:
McNamara:True freshman James White's play has surprised everyone except those close to the program. A three-star tailback from St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, White has exploded up the depth chart and is getting a good deal of carries behind veteran John Clay. His speed and ability to get around the corner has allowed Paul Chryst to open up his playbook a bit more.
Schelling: Nick Toon - Poised for a big, breakout season within the potent Wisconsin offense, little has gone according to plan for Nick Toon. Between injuries and weak performances in big games, Toon has been far from the top receiver most fans and experts expected him to be. Toon has one month, plus the bowl game to put up big numbers, or his season will be the biggest disappointment for UW in the 2010 season.
Lea: Winning back-to-back games against No. 1 Ohio State and No. 15 Iowa. It was simply huge for the program, for the fans and really, for the state of Wisconsin. It propelled the school into national relevance. People are talking about the Badgers now. And I don't think many people thought UW would be sitting at 7-1 through eight games. And if they did, I doubt they thought UW would be 2-0 against Ohio State and Iowa. That stretch was pretty surprising to me.
Finish the sentence. When the regular season is over, Wisconsin will be playing in the…?
McNamara: ... bowl game furthest away from Florida. After traveling to the Sunshine State for what feels like the last 10 years, Badger fans would love a trip to Pasadena in January.
Schelling: Rose Bowl - With Iowa making Michigan State look silly, the Badgers now find themselves in a four-way tie for the lead in the conference. They hold a tiebreaker over both the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes, but they'll need some help from the Spartans to come out on top, which is the final piece to the puzzle. After their laugher at Kinnick Stadium, I don't see MSU going into Penn State and winning their final game of the season. On a similar note, the Hawkeyes will likely knock off OSU as well, setting things up perfectly for Wisconsin to make the trip to Pasadena for the first time since Jan. 1, 2000.
Lea: …BCS. Whether it's the Rose Bowl or any other of the premier bowls, UW will no longer be seeing a second tier paycheck from a second tier bowl. With the leadership this team has across the board, there's no doubt in my mind UW will run the table and find itself playing in a huge bowl game on a national scale. Regardless, the final four weeks should be pretty entertaining.