MADISON, Wis. – Jay Valai didn't quite know how he got through the line to make a shocking play that saved the day for No. 11 Wisconsin.
With a nervous Camp Randall Stadium crowd assuming the Badgers were about to blow a fourth-quarter lead, the senior safety surged to swat a game-tying extra point attempt in a 20-19 victory over Arizona State on Saturday.
"I jumped over somebody's leg, or maybe I crawled under because I'm a little short," Valai said. "But I made the play and blocked it."
Valai also salvaged some pride after a miserable day for the Badgers special teams, which gave up several long returns that could have cost Wisconsin (3-0) the game.
Wisconsin's coverage units were so sloppy the crowd let out a sarcastic cheer anytime the Badgers tackled a Sun Devils kick or punt returner without giving up a big gain in the second half.
But Wisconsin did manage to make two game-changing plays on special teams: Valai's extra point block and a last-ditch tackle by Shelton Johnson that prevented a touchdown return just before halftime.
The Badgers haven't looked particularly sharp in their first three games, but they'll take the wins.
"It's only going to make us stronger as a team," quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "Even the first two weeks, we faced some adversity with turning the ball over and stuff like that, and looking back you would never like to have those mistakes. But at the same time, hopefully that will help us in the long run, just having to fight through that adversity and work through it."
It was a harsh ending for Arizona State (2-1) after making a serious bid for an upset.
The Sun Devils kept Wisconsin's defense off balance for much of the day with their up-tempo spread offense, but couldn't turn drives into points.
"I told them we blew a lot of opportunities offensively to score touchdowns and score points," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "That is why we lost. I also told them defensively, on third down, we needed to get out of drives and get the ball back to the offense."
Then after embarrassing Wisconsin with several long returns, Arizona State couldn't execute the most basic special teams play of all.
"I was talking to the defense, telling them we needed to get the ball back," quarterback Steven Threet said. "I didn't know what happened until I heard the crowd noise. It's tough but it's a part of the game. Special teams were big for us today."
Wisconsin's John Clay rebounded from a slow start to rush for 123 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter for Wisconsin. Tolzien was 19 of 25 for 246 yards and a touchdown.
With the Badgers thin at wide receiver, tight end Lance Kendricks caught seven passes for 131 yards.
The Badgers sustained several injuries on defense during the game — including linebacker Chris Borland, who re-injured his surgically repaired shoulder injury. Badgers coach Bret Bielema said the team will consider redshirting Borland.
Deantre Lewis had 122 yards rushing for the Sun Devils.
Threet was 21 of 33 for 211 yards and nearly pulled off what would have been his second career comeback against the Badgers. Threet, a transfer from Michigan, led the Wolverines to a comeback victory over the Badgers in 2008.
"We can move the ball," Threet said. "We've just got to finish when we get down there."
With the game tied at 13, the Wisconsin running game asserted itself late in the third quarter. The Badgers drove 88 yards in eight plays, taking the lead when Clay scored from the 19.
Trailing 20-13, Arizona State stopped Clay short on third-and-2 to force a punt with 8:22 left in the game.
Threet drove the Sun Devils to Cameron Marshalls' 2-yard touchdown run to cut Wisconsin's lead to 20-19 with 4:09 left in the game — but Valai blocked the kick.
Wisconsin's offense then converted a critical third-and-2 play to Kendricks, and the Badgers ran out the clock.
Trailing and struggling for most of the first half, the Badgers took a 13-10 lead after Tolzien's 14-yard touchdown pass to Kendricks late in the second quarter — but the Badgers nearly allowed their second special-teams touchdown of the game just before halftime.
The Sun Devils' Kyle Middlebrooks burst through the Badgers' kick coverage and appeared headed for a touchdown when Johnson tackled him at the 1 as the clock expired.
Arizona State's Omar Bolden returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and the Sun Devils nearly got another special teams touchdown in the first half when a punt return was called back because of a penalty.