Herald sports preview this Saturday’s Iowa game
Wisconsin’s secondary knows all about the criticism they’ve received over the past few seasons.
They know they’re often labeled as UW’s weakness.
But last Saturday against Ohio State, the Wisconsin defensive backs looked like a team strength. Terrelle Pryor completed just 14-of-28 passes and the top-ranked Buckeyes failed to register a big, downfield play through the air.
The much-maligned Badger cornerbacks knew they had something to prove against OSU and they played like it.
“We had a whole lot of motivation coming into that game. I mean, the whole year people been saying ‘they are not that good and this and that’,” junior safety Aaron Henry said. “But [the cornerbacks] have been working their butts off all year and they have been doing a phenomenal job.”
Henry and fellow safety Jay Valai didn’t have a strong presence against the Buckeyes (each registered three tackles) largely because the corners, Antonio Fenelus and Niles Brinkley did such a good job locking down OSU’s talented wide receivers.
“They did a tremendous job, and they held it down for our secondary” Henry said of the cornerbacks. “They stepped up to the challenge and competed on the highest level.”
Fenelus and Brinkley lined up across two of the top wideouts in the conference in DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher, and the UW corners made things difficult for Pryor’s top targets.
Early in the first half, Fenelus jumped Posey’s curl route and forced an incompletion and that play set a tone for the rest of the night.
Fenelus was a menace during all four quarters, as he put forth a complete performance against the then No.1 ranked team.
“From my standpoint it was probably his best game,” secondary coach Chris Ash said.
The junior was a little more convinced last Saturday was his best outing.
“Yeah I’d definitely say it was my best game,” Fenelus said.
UW’s tight coverage forced a couple dropped passes and limited Pryor’s ability to connect downfield. Pryor had just as much trouble completing the shorter throws where UW’s corners were consistently in a position to make a play on the ball.
Posey, regarded as OSU’s top deep threat, was held to 38 yards on four catches. Sanzenbacher reeled in six receptions, but there was little room to run after the catch as the Badger corners played with great closing speed throughout.
And due to Pryor’s mobility, the UW secondary was forced to keep their coverage tight as the OSU quarterback scrambled to buy more time. That put a lot of pressure on Fenelus and Brinkley to stay with their man for long periods. But despite the added time to throw, Pryor still had trouble identifying open receivers, and that’s a credit to the UW corners.
“If he scrambles you have to stay on top of your receiver,” Brinkley said. “We practiced it and we were ready.”
“I’m not going to lie, that was tough, but the coaches told us all week to just stay in coverage and we did that,” Fenelus said.
The key for the Badger secondary and the rest of the team will be to put their victory against Ohio State behind them. Ash is proud of the effort his players put forth against the Buckeyes, but another obstacle lies ahead.
“We peaked Saturday, and right now the challenge for us is to maintain that level throughout the rest of the season,” Ash said.
The rest of the season starts with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Iowa’s receivers are arguably the best in the conference, and to slow down quarterback Ricky Stanzi and the Hawkeye offense UW’s D-backs will need to find that peak performance once again.
“[Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt] are the best pair that we’ve faced, and the quarterback can throw the ball too,” Ash said. “They have good size and run well and they get behind coverage a lot on play-action passes.”
Johnson-Koulianos has seven touchdowns on the year and has proven to be Stanzi’s No. 1 option. In Henry’s mind, the 6-foot-1 senior is the best receiver the Badgers have prepared to face.
“Koulianos is the only one comparable to the Ohio State receivers just because of his size. But I think he runs routes way better, not taking anything away from the Ohio State guys,” Henry said. “He’s been around for a while and he can catch the ball in traffic, catch the ball downfield.”
At 6-foot-4, Marvin McNutt roams on the other side of the field and gives Iowa two playmaking options in the passing game.
After limiting Ohio State’s passing game, the Wisconsin secondary is loaded with confidence heading into Iowa City, but they know full well that a completely different offense led by a more established passer will be ready and waiting at Kinnick Stadium.
But like last week, it’s a challenge the inspired Wisconsin cornerbacks are looking forward to.
“That was one of our best performances, and we put a great show on against the No.1 team,” Brinkley said. “Now we need to match that intensity on Saturday against Iowa.”