LOS ANGELES – Each morning of his freshman summer in Madison, Scott Tolzien awoke in the pre-dawn chill and hopped on his rented red bicycle, racing his new teammates to Camp Randall Stadium for workouts and studies.
Tolzien never anticipated he was riding down a path to become one of the most successful quarterbacks in Wisconsin history.
Tolzien's teammates say he works harder than just about anyone at No. 4 Wisconsin, but doesn't do much else to draw attention to himself. He sees himself a caretaker, not a trailblazer — just another cog in the Badgers' machine.
While his teammates might believe they couldn't beat undefeated TCU in the Rose Bowl without their steady senior quarterback, Tolzien insists Wisconsin can do just fine without him, this weekend and beyond.
"Hopefully we're sitting here again next season, and they're saying, 'Gosh, we don't miss that guy,'" Tolzien said earnestly Tuesday in a downtown hotel. "Hopefully I'm a forgotten man."
Tolzien has spent many Saturdays mostly handing off during his two seasons as the Badgers' starter, yet he also has become Wisconsin's most accurate and efficient quarterback while going 21-4. He has passed for 2,300 yards and 16 touchdowns this season while leading Wisconsin to its first share of the Big Ten title in 11 years, throwing just six interceptions and completing a school-record 74.3 percent of his passes.
He even beat out TCU's record-setting Andy Dalton this season for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the nation's top senior quarterback — the first major award ever won by a Wisconsin passer. Now, he'll attempt to join Darrell Bevell, Mike Samuel and Brooks Bollinger as the only Badgers quarterbacks to win a Rose Bowl.
"One of his best traits is he understands who's around him," Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "If we're rolling in the running game, he's aware of the situation. If we need to throw the ball, he knows what he needs to do to make a play under control. Scotty really does understand the big picture."
Wisconsin's signal-caller is habitually marginalized — even by himself — as a mere game manager. It's almost a school tradition in Madison, where the Badgers' offense features its usual mammoth offensive line along with a star tight end and three tailbacks with more than 850 yards rushing apiece.
Tolzien knows not many quarterbacks can throw just one pass in an entire half of a ballgame — as he did in the second halves of Wisconsin's last two games, blowout victories over Michigan and Northwestern — and still be a candidate for flashy postseason awards.
"With the offense we have, and with the offensive line I play behind, I think a lot of quarterbacks would be having success in this system," Tolzien said. "That's the Wisconsin tradition ever since I was a kid, having guys that manage the game, run the clock and move the chains."
Yet Wisconsin left guard John Moffitt notes that game-manager quarterbacks have similarities to referees and security guards: If you don't notice them, they're probably quite good.
"People don't give him a fraction of the credit he deserves," said Moffitt, Tolzien's longtime roommate and the Oscar to the quarterback's persnickety Felix. "Nothing can rattle this guy or take him out of what we're trying to do."
It's remarkable Tolzien ended up at Wisconsin at all. Coming out of high school in Chicago's northwest suburbs, he was barely recruited by the nation's top schools — not even by the Badgers.
"They had their board of guys, and I was probably on the lower end of that," Tolzien said. "As their guys committed to other schools, I moved up. Got lucky, I think."
Tolzien lost the chance to go to a handful of MAC schools while he waited to commit. As spots filled up, Tolzien realized his choices would come down to Toledo — where he would have to be a grayshirt — and Wisconsin, if the Badgers made an offer. They did, on the weekend before signing day.
"I remember talking to my parents about it, thinking that whatever opportunity I got, I was going to have to make the best of it," Tolzien said. "Ultimately, anything is just what you make of it."
Tolzien arrived in Madison in 2006, wearing glasses and planning to soak up Wisconsin's offense. He remembers hopping on his beat-up bike every morning — "We called them the Red Rockets," he said — and racing his roommate to Camp Randall at dawn.
He got his work ethic from his parents and coaches, but also from a magazine interview with Donovan McNabb in which the veteran quarterback spoke about living every day in fear somebody was outworking him.
"I was a nerd my freshman year," Tolzien said. "I remember we were rehearsing those plays by ourselves, over and over and over again, and now we're running them in big-time stadiums in front of big crowds. It's hard to believe."
Tolzien didn't play as a redshirt freshman, and completed five passes in three games as a sophomore. Moffitt has never seen his roommate more depressed than after the 2009 spring game, when Tolzien played poorly — but Chryst named him the Badgers' starting quarterback in fall camp.
In perhaps the most improbable development of all, Tolzien has turned himself into a respectable NFL prospect — again not on the top of anybody's board, but a candidate for a career.
If he keeps making his own good luck, who knows?
"He's a good quarterback that not many people give enough credit to," TCU linebacker Tank Carder said. "He's great at disguising what he's doing. Just a smart, veteran quarterback."