What was the big difference between the first eight games and the last four games this season?
It wouldn’t be wrong to point out scoring; the Badgers averaged 35.6 points per game through eight contests. Then, coming off a bye week, Wisconsin averaged 58.75 points over its last four games.
But lost in all the touchdowns and accusations of running up the score was another sudden increase in production, this surge coming on the defensive side of the ball.
In Wisconsin’s first eight games, the Badgers forced seven turnovers. Over the last four, they had 16 takeaways.
So what’s up with that?
“I don’t want to say that we weren’t working hard toward getting takeaways and making turnovers the first half of the season, but over break, we really focused on that part,” said junior defensive end Louis Nzegwu.
“It was a progression from the first time we played a game to the end of the season. But we’re always pretty much doing the same thing,” junior safety Aaron Henry said. “It just so happened that the ball was coming out a little more.”
Whether it was a simply a progression or in fact a renewed focus following the bye week, the Badgers were a turnover-forcing machine to end the season. Wisconsin had four takeaways against Purdue, three against Indiana, two against Michigan and an eye-popping seven in the regular season finale against Northwestern.
The play of the defense over the last four games helped the Badgers to a 1.17 turnover margin, tied for third in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Badgers had a miniscule nine turnovers lost on the season, tied for first in FBS, but it took a concerted effort from the defense to put an exclamation point on that figure.
It’s a big departure from the team that had forced just three turnovers through its first four games — against the likes of UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State and Austin Peay, no less.
It’s also something that has been building, as the secondary got used to new coach Chris Ash. Poor tackling had been a trademark of the UW secondary over the past few seasons, a trend that now seems a distant memory. Getting the fundamentals right has helped the Badgers turn their attention to other things in practice, which is where all of UW’s game performances — for better or for worse — stem from.
“The main thing is during the week, we have Takeaway Tuesday, Competition Wednesday, Perfect Thursday,” cornerback Antonio Fenelus said. “We just try to put it in our head, as long as we’re in the right place making plays, turnovers will come to us.”
And while Fenelus, who leads the Badgers with four interceptions, could take plenty of credit, he’s quick to point out the play of other position groups for giving him the opportunities.
Fellow starting corner Niles Brinkley was rarely thrown at as the season went on, as opposing offenses tried to pick on the smaller — he’s listed at a generous 5-foot-9 — Fenelus.
Perhaps no game illustrated how much turnovers are a team effort than the Badgers’ seven-takeaway game against the Wildcats. Defensive end J.J. Watt wreaked havoc on NU, notching three quarterback hurries, of which two led directly to interceptions, and forcing two fumbles.
“Even against Northwestern we had some tipped balls, that was big,” said linebacker Blake Sorenson, who has two interceptions. The D-line does a great job getting pressure to the quarterback, [causing] a lot of interceptions. It takes 11 guys to get a turnover.”
And while it’s not a slight to Sorenson, both his picks were a direct result of great pressure by the defensive line.
With the biggest game of the season coming up, it would be fair to expect there to be some pressure on the defense to force some interceptions or fumbles. That’s not the mindset though.
“We have to prepare the same way, keep the same focus as we have,” Fenelus said. “It’s a bowl game, it’s the Rose Bowl, you could say it’s a bigger game, but we’re just going to prepare the same way as we always do, prepare to win.”
Texas Christian quarterback Andy Dalton won’t be one to make many mistakes. The senior threw just six interceptions on the year, and as a team, TCU lost just 13 turnovers.
But as a possible blessing in disguise, UW already knows it doesn’t need turnovers to win. In arguably the Badgers two biggest wins, against Iowa and Ohio State, UW only managed one interception.
So on the biggest stage of the season, Wisconsin’s defense will be ready to take advantage of any opportunity that comes its way — but don’t expect them to force the issue.
“Coach will pat you on the back if you make it, coach will send you to the sidelines if you don’t. So that’s a big risk,” Nzegwu said. “In a game as big as this, you want to stick to what you do. If you’re in a position to make a certain play, you’ve got to make it. You can’t try to step out of your own shoes and try to do something you’re not usually doing.”