For once, the complaints about the Wisconsin defense aren’t centered around the secondary.
With playmaking linebacker Chris Borland out for the season, most of the concern is centered around the Badgers’ ability to create a pass rush. Defensive end J.J. Watt can’t do everything, after all.
And while there weren’t a lot of positives to take out of UW’s loss on the road to Michigan State, the Badgers did win the turnover battle, intercepting quarterback Kirk Cousins twice and forcing a fumble. All three turnovers came courtesy of the Wisconsin secondary, the position group that arguably made the most plays in the game.
“I think a lot of people always want to talk about the DB’s being the weak spot all the time,” safety Jay Valai said. “I know as a defensive back, we take that personally.”
Cornerback Antonio Fenelus intercepted Cousins on a mid-range pass in the first quarter on a third-down attempt. The Badgers would drive the field, capping it off with a 16-yard touchdown run by James White to put UW up 7-3.
Niles Brinkley forced a fumble which the Badgers recovered on MSU’s next drive, leading to a UW field goal and a 10-3 lead.
“Turnovers are always a positive. They change momentum in games; they give the offense back the ball to be able to drive the field,” Brinkley said. “They also give the defense confidence. All three of those are ingredients in winning games.”
Despite the Badgers getting another interception after Devin Smith caught a ball tipped by Watt, Wisconsin was down 20-10 at the half.
Winning the turnover battle usually results in winning games. But although the Badgers got three turnovers in the first half, they were unable to make any plays in the second half.
“On top of that, we just have to be able to finish the game,” Fenelus said. “That happened in the first half, but we’ve got to be able to do those things in the second half, and stop them on third down when we need it.”
However, the fact that UW’s secondary got those turnovers at all can be seen as a positive. Fenelus had one interception prior to Saturday’s game, and UW’s only other pick came on a gift-wrapped ball to linebacker Blake Sorenson. The Badgers hadn’t recovered a fumble since the season-opener at UNLV.
Aside from a few unsuccessful dives for balls on Valai’s part and a couple chances by Watt, the Badgers haven’t had a lot of opportunities to create turnovers. Wisconsin’s low numbers weren’t for a lack of trying.
“In the first few games, we really didn’t have a lot of opportunities that presented themselves, for a couple reasons,” defensive backs coach Chris Ash said. “One, guys made good decisions, our opponents did, and we weren’t creating as many opportunities as we needed to. Saturday, they presented themselves, and we were in the right spots and took advantage.”
Not only were the interceptions a good sign the Badgers are capable of making plays, but they offered a big boost in confidence for a group of players who need it.
Confidence is even bigger for the Badgers’ defensive backs because they themselves aren’t big guys. Valai stands at 5-foot-9, while Fenelus is just 5-foot-8. In Wisconsin’s five main defensive backs, only junior free safety Aaron Henry is even six feet tall.
A bit of little-man syndrome never hurt guys like Valai or Fenelus, who thrive off it.
“We got one tall guy in Hank (Henry) at least, Hank’s about 6-1,” Valai said. “But besides that, no, we don’t really have the size. We know we can play with anybody, we’re like little pit bulls; we’re not scared of anybody. If you want to think you’re bigger than us, then that’s good for you, but that’s not the end of it.”
“I like that, because I like to be challenged,” Fenelus added. “Every chance I get they throw the ball at me, I’m going to go up and try to get the ball.”
And while the Badgers have just proved they can come up with turnovers against a legitimate opponent, they also have another weapon in Henry and Valai, who have delivered some of the biggest hits of the year for UW.
Valai, who has a reputation as a big hitter, came on a blitz against the Spartans and leveled Cousins. Henry has done all he can to challenge Valai for the big-hit crown, producing his share of highlight-reel hits as well — most recently, a massive hit on Austin Peay tight end Ashlon Adams.
While having wrecking balls like Valai and Henry is an advantage, it’s not something Ash preaches to his defensive backs.
“Teams may think about what they’re going to do pass-wise. They’re going to account for that stuff, but we’re not necessarily out there looking for big hits,” he said. “Sometimes big hits will knock the ball loose, sometimes it doesn’t. We’re looking to get the ball back.”
Until the Badgers can develop an effective four-man pass rush, Wisconsin might have to look to its secondary to become playmakers, rather than simply hoping its defensive backs are not a liability.
As far as Valai is concerned, that won’t be a problem.
“I think we’re confident and we’ve got a lot of swagger back there,” he said. “Niles is getting old and he’s slow, but besides that… all together, we’re playing well. We’ve got a cocky swagger.”
“Last year, we were in there, we were hesitant, we were worried about making mistakes,” Fenelus added. “But now we’re just going out there and playing.”