If there were any questions about the Badgers’ offensive attack heading into the season, running back P.J. Hill made sure they were answered in the University of Wisconsin’s victory over Akron. This weekend, the secondary will hope to do the same.
In Wisconsin’s 38-17 season-opening win Saturday, the Badgers’ inexperienced defensive backs did little to quell fears that the group would be a weak link this season. With a game under their belts though, the unit will look to put any questions to rest when Marshall comes to Camp Randall Stadium.
“I feel like we still have a lot to work on,” sophomore cornerback Niles Brinkley said. “I’m not saying we’re bad, but we’ve got a lot to work on and improve on.”
The Badgers surrendered 227 yards through the air against the Zips, and had it not been for a couple of missed throws and dropped passes, that total could have been significantly higher.
“[Against Akron] there’s three or four plays where the ball was over our head, and there were two drops, two over-throws, and those situations can happen,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “A lot of times with [first-year secondary players] that’s the hardest thing they go through.”
Wisconsin’s lack of experienced defensive backs was no secret heading into the season, and the team expects opponents to test the secondary all year long.
“I think all the teams we play are going to go after us,” Brinkley game. “Since we’re so young, I think they’re going to go after us a lot.”
Now with a little more playing experience, the Badgers’ youthful defensive backs know what it is going to take to keep other teams from attacking them.
“It’s our keys and staying focused every single play,” freshman Mario Goins said. “Our ability is there. We just have to stay focused.”
Goins made his first career start against Akron while Brinkley, who saw plenty of time against the Zips, has never started a game.
When the Thundering Herd comes to town this weekend though, Goins and Brinkley believe they’ll be ready for whatever is thrown at them.
“They’re definitely going to attack us,” Goins said. “We just got to do a good job of staying focused, and they can come after us all they like.”
If the secondary can improve on last week’s performance it might be a long game for Marshall (1-0), who soundly beat FCS opponent Illinois State in its season opener. However, Marshall finished last season with a 3-9 record.
On paper, the Herd appears to be over-matched. The Badgers (1-0) jumped to No. 11 in the polls after they cruised to a season-opening win and their 15th consecutive home victory.
Though Marshall will not be overlooked by Wisconsin, UW will still be expected to overpower its opponent, especially on the ground.
The Herd held the Redbirds to under 100 yards on the ground last weekend, but the Badgers, who ran for over 400 yards against the Zips, will likely continue with its run-heavy offense in their second game.
“A little bit is what we do, but a little bit will also be dictated off of what our opponents try to do in defending those type of situations,” Bielema said of the game plan. “But I would say that we’ll run the football until someone says we can’t.”
Hill rushed for over 200 yards against Akron while Zack Brown and John Clay also contributed solid performances.
“In conjunction with the talent that we have at running back, you just naturally feel that you should be able to do certain things in the running game,” Bielema said.
Marshall will bring its own solid running game to the contest Saturday. Sophomore Darius Marshall ran for 115 yards in the season opener and will be a focus for the Wisconsin defense.
“[Marshall] is extremely talented, a guy that, going into his second year now, is seasoned and really has a good feel for the game,” Bielema said. “He really got better as the game wore on.”
Last week the Wisconsin defense did a good job against the run, holding Akron to just 70 rushing yards. If the Badgers can turn in the same kind of effort this weekend, it will be tough for MU to pull of the upset.
Marshall will be Wisconsin’s last chance to tune up before the team travels to play a difficult and ranked Fresno State team before starting conference play.