Possibly the most criticized unit of recent Badgers teams, the Wisconsin secondary has been anything but spectacular in the past couple of seasons.
However, despite facing injury issues, the 2011 unit finally looks like the shutdown secondary that Badger fans have dreamed about for years. Beginning the season with five upperclassmen (Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie are co-starters), the UW secondary finally features the experience and veteran leadership to lead a formidable passing defense.
Led by senior captain Aaron Henry, one of the most outspoken players on the team and a clear leader of this year’s squad, Wisconsin ranks No. 6 nationally in passing defense.
While Russell Wilson garners much of the attention in the greater Camp Randall area, as he leads the third-ranked scoring offense in the country, the secondary has probably shown more growth and improvement than any other part of the team this year.
Despite UW’s run to the Rose Bowl last year, the Badgers finished the season ranked 26th in passing defense, and the secondary rarely looked great in an otherwise outstanding season. Featuring hard-hitting safety Jay Valai and cornerback Niles Brinkley, the defensive backfield was never short on talent but lacked the chemistry so crucial to defending the pass.
Anyone who tuned into a Wisconsin game in 2010 can recall the constant frustration of seeing opposing receivers wide open on 20-yard pass plays as the members of the UW secondary stared at each other with perplexed looks. For a Badger fan, there are few things more frustrating than watching Ricky Stanzi or Kirk Cousins lead a quick passing drive down the field as the secondary mounts little resistance to the oncoming attack.
As I looked on from the bleachers in this year’s opening matchup, I was shocked to see that UNLV struggled to pass the ball against the Wisconsin secondary. It was UNLV, but still, I have seen such bottom-dwellers mount a surprisingly successful air attack against the Badgers before. Last year, it often seemed like if J.J. Watt didn’t deflect the ball out of the way, all of Camp Randall held its breath in anticipation of another long down-the-field completion.
The development of the secondary could be attributed to the maturity of individual players — particularly Henry and Cromartie — and there appears to be a newfound connection between the members of the defensive backfield. Much like the secondary, the Badgers have no true defensive standout this season on defense a la Watt in 2010, but their chemistry and team defense looks stronger than ever five games into the year.
Shutting out Oregon State and giving up just a single score against Northern Illinois, the secondary has been the perfect compliment to a defensive line that is exceeding expectations. Although the secondary’s five interceptions on the year may not be turning heads, the Badger cornerbacks and safeties are regularly breaking up passes, something that has been severely lacking over the last two years or so.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the secondary has been the play of Cromartie, a redshirt junior who has already collected 24 tackles, with a career-high eight of those coming against Northern Illinois in his first game taking over full-time for an injured Smith. Over the summer, Cromartie trained with his cousin and New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie and other NFL stars including Clay Matthews, and it appears the experience paid off. Whether an effect of working out with the top defensive players in the league or the fact that he returned to Madison this year a more focused and complete player, Cromartie deserves serious credit for the secondary’s improvement.
Critics (i.e. other Big Ten fans) may argue that Wisconsin’s defense has yet to face a dangerous passing attack, but the Oregon State offense that UW held scoreless ranks just two spots behind UW as the No. 30 passing offense in the nation. Sure, the Badgers haven’t yet faced a high-scoring prolific attack through the air comparable to that of an Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, but there’s no doubt that the secondary is a major part of Wisconsin’s surprisingly strong ‘D.’
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the secondary’s performance this year is that they have managed to maintain a high level of play while dealing with several key injuries. Smith, a senior cornerback, looked like a much-improved player in his first two games before suffering a leg injury that put a premature close on his season. Cromartie — already listed as a co-starter at the beginning of the year — has done a stellar job stepping in for Smith, but it was still a major loss for the UW secondary.
In Wisconsin’s next game against South Dakota, starting strong safety Shelton Johnson went down with a leg injury. Though he is expected to return this week against Indiana, redshirt sophomore Dezmen Southward has looked like a player well beyond his years after taking over for Johnson.
The fact that the Badgers’ secondary has not only looked much better than in recent years but also been able to handle such adversity is a true testament to the growth of this unit. Knocking down 21 passes in five games, UW’s secondary may show its true value in the team’s remaining games. As the Badgers enter the toughest part of their schedule, including back-to-back road tests at Ohio State and Michigan State, the secondary has yet to face its toughest tests of the year.
In the two games that may hold the key to Wisconsin’s BCS bowl chances, Aaron Henry and co. will be in the spotlight to see if their better numbers are a result of genuinely improved play or simply weak competition. The most challenging game of the year may come against Michigan State, where the Badgers will have to contain standout Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins, who throws for an average of more than 230 yards per game.
As RussellMania and the ESPN Badgers bandwagon continue to gain momentum, don’t forget about the secondary. For all the criticism the defensive backs have taken over the past few years, it’s finally time to give credit where credit is due. Now, if only we could find something else to complain about…
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think the UW secondary is overrated or show their true form as the schedule heats up? Let him know at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @imccue.