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Tom Oates: Bowl games bring out best in Badgers coach Paul Chryst
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Tom Oates: Bowl games bring out best in Badgers coach Paul Chryst

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PASADENA, Calif. — With several weeks to prepare for bowl games, college football coaches often get adventuresome, putting in new plays and schemes they wouldn’t have time for in their normal week-to-week routine.

Tight end Jake Ferguson is hoping University of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is at his creative best when the Badgers (10-3) meet Oregon (11-2) Wednesday in the Rose Bowl.

“I’ve definitely wanted a tight end reverse pass put in,” Ferguson said with a laugh. “I told Coach we have the weeks to prepare, but I don’t know if he’s going to do it.”

You never know. Chryst has displayed considerable offensive creativity in bowl games, but putting in new wrinkles is only one reason he has a 4-0 bowl record at UW. Chryst has also shown a remarkable ability to get his players to perform at a high level in bowl games, something that isn’t easy for coaches to do, especially when their team is coming off a disappointing loss or season.

Of course, it helps when you’re in the Rose Bowl, the greatest consolation prize in sports. If you fall short of the four-team playoff, a game in Pasadena is the next best thing.

“This is the bowl game you want to go to,” tailback Jonathan Taylor said. “Before college playoffs was a thing, this was the bowl. So we’re going to be out there and be really excited.”

With Chryst pulling the strings, that’s almost a given. He learned how to prepare a team from the old bowl-meister himself, former UW coach and current UW athletic director Barry Alvarez. Alvarez was 3-1 in Rose Bowls and 9-4 in bowls overall, including a 1-1 record as an interim coach.

Chryst was the offensive coordinator in Alvarez’s final season in 2005 and remained in that position through 2011 before becoming the coach at Pitt, where his bowl record was 1-1 in three seasons. You may recall that Chryst’s game plan in Alvarez’s final game as coach was a thing of beauty. UW couldn’t match Auburn’s team speed in the Capitol One Bowl, but Chryst schemed to get his two fastest players — tailback Brian Calhoun and wide receiver Brandon Williams — the ball in space, resulting in more than 200 yards from scrimmage from each one in the Badgers’ 24-10 victory.

Since Chryst took over at UW, the Badgers have beaten USC, Western Michigan and Miami (Fla.) in bowl games — defeating Miami twice. His game plans included things like tight end screens, more fullback runs and, last year, option runs by quarterback Jack Coan.

Those weren’t wholesale changes, just a little something to make the opposing coaches and players scramble. Chryst said there is a fine line between putting in new things and overloading his players.

“You’ve got time to maybe put in something specifically for the opponent, but you had better not try and reinvent everything,” he said, noting that his players had reduced practice time since the regular season was pushed back this season and UW played in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game. “You don’t have a ton of time. You can put in a play-action pass off of something because you see how they fit it or you can put in something else, but the bulk of your plays better be from the bulk of your offense.”

More important than the game plan is the team’s approach. Alvarez always told his players to have fun when it was time to have fun and work when it was time to work. Chryst does the same.

“I think what I took away from him was that it’s a reward for the players and for the coaches’ families and so enjoy that part of it, and then I also believe the thing you still will remember the most is the game,” Chryst said. “So if you can balance those two, you can make it a success.”

Alvarez has praised Chryst for making bowl games important to the players, something that can be difficult. Some players might be thinking of their NFL future, others might have checked out mentally when the team fell short of its goals.

Only in Chryst’s first year did UW go into a bowl game off a victory. The Badgers lost in the Big Ten title game in 2016, 2017 and again this year. Last year, they were coming off a shocking loss to Minnesota. Yet, they always come to play, usually jumping out to early leads.

“I think Coach does a great job of telling them to be in the moment,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “It’s the holiday season. It’s bowl game festivities. Enjoy what you’re doing, have fun with it. And the two key things are focus and caring about each other.”

A good way to tell how important the game is to UW’s players is their attendance. These days, college players routinely duck out of bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft process.

UW has players who could have opted for that route this year, but will continue its streak of never having a player bypass a bowl game. The program’s culture won’t allow it.

“I think it says a lot about their character, first and foremost,” linebacker Chris Orr said. “Second, I think it says a lot that they love football. Collectively as a program, we love football here. When you love football, you don’t just skip out on your last game with your team. I’m not saying people don’t. I definitely understand the decision. I wouldn’t be mad at somebody if they did. But we truly love each other and nobody wants to leave anybody behind. You don’t want to end your last game as a team or your last game with some of your teammates on that Big Ten loss. You want to finish with a win.”

Under Chryst, that’s what UW does.

Badgers vs. Oregon: Who has the edge?

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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