Despite losing several key players from a year ago, there remained plenty of reasons to talk up the Wisconsin football team’s offense.
Just a few include returning backs Montee Ball, James White, another sure-to-be solid offensive line and two rising wide receivers.
However, in Saturday’s spring football game at Camp Randall Stadium, the defense stole the show with the aggressive mindset defensive coordinator Chris Ash has been preaching all spring.
“There’s definitely a new swag, a new mentality to just to out there and feel like you’re going to win, you’re going to dominate,” linebacker A.J. Fenton said. “That’s the confidence they want in us, and I think you saw that today.”
The White team (defense) topped the Cardinal team (offense), 29-27, and never conceded a touchdown.
The White team allowed just 376 yards on 113 plays – an average of about 3.3 yards per play.
“I felt a lot of people made production today,” defensive end Louis Nzegwu said. “A lot of people took strides, even from the last practice. I think we’re light years ahead of where we were on day one, and I think a lot of people stood out.”
In the defensive domination, the White team forced four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble) and recorded eight tackles for loss (five of which were sacks) to set the offense back a total of 30 yards.
The White team allowed just 2.6 yards per play against the Cardinal’s much-hyped run game. Although running backs James White (5.9 yards per carry) and Montee Ball (4.1) finished with solid yards-per-carry averages, it didn’t come easy.
Members of all three defensive units made stops on the run. Among the defensive line and linebacking corps, David Gilbert, Conor O’Neill, Michael Trotter and Brendan Kelly led the way with six tackles apiece.
Gilbert and Nzegwu each had a sack and another tackle for loss while Trotter, who filled in at middle linebacker for the injured Chris Borland, also played well. The redshirt freshman pressured the quarterback often, forcing one fumble on Jon Budmayr and took Ball head-on on a draw play and stopped the back for two yards.
Head coach Bret Bielema came away impressed with the production of his defensive line in its ability to stop the run and force the quarterbacks to scramble often.
“I think Brendan Kelly, Louis and David can give us some really nice rotation there at defensive end, and I thought (defensive line coach) Charlie’s (Partridge) done a nice job of getting our guys to convert from run to pass really well in the inside position,” Bielema said. “That was showing up today in making guys get out of the pocket.”
The linebackers’ strong play also extended into the pass game as well. O’Neill broke up at least two passes and nicely wrapped up running back Jeffrey Lewis in a solo effort outside the tackles.
Redshirt freshman Ben Ruechel picked off a pass, as did Fenton, who in the first quarter tipped a pass by Joel Stave high in the air and managed to spin around and catch the ball before it hit the ground.
UW’s defensive backs also impressed Bielema, especially at the safety position. Throughout camp, Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward have battled for playing time at strong safety opposite Aaron Henry at free safety. And heading into the spring, Bielema said he worried about filling in that spot.
But after Saturday’s game, the play of Johnson and Southward has reassured the head coach.
“I was really worried, concerned, about the safety position, but Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry and Dezmen Southward, I think, are three guys that can really give us some ability there that I didn’t know was going to be there,” Bielema said.
Southward started the first half, recording four tackles and, on two occasions, displayed an adeptness at filling in the gaps on rushing plays.
On the first series, he blitzed from the strong side and did well to clog up the running back’s avenue. Later in the first half, he shot through the clutter and wrapped up the running back near the line of scrimmage.
Johnson started the second half and also recorded four tackles. He deflected a pass from Joe Brennan to Isiah Williams that would have landed the Cardinal team with a first down in the red zone.
Later, after Budmayr hit wide receiver Jared Abbrederis in the middle of the field for a first down, Johnson immediately popped the wideout with a hard hit from his shoulder, although Abbrederis did hang on.
Elswhere in the secondary, Devin Smith picked off an underthrown pass from Budmayr near the red zone and Peniel Jean lead the defense with nine tackles.
The Cardinal team did allow at least four plays over 20 yards, but allowing only one scoring drive the entire day added confidence to the already confident group.