While Wisconsin’s battle for the starting quarterback gig headlined the 2012 spring game, the Badgers’ No. 1 defense kept the backup offense out of the endzone in a 21-10 victory for the Cardinal.
In a game that paired the Cardinal – Wisconsin’s probable starters this fall – with their backups donning white jerseys, the secondaries from the two teams combined to break up six separate passes and grab a late redzone interception. Though it surrendered several breakout runs to speedy Cardinal running back Melvin Gordon, the defense emerged from the spring game with a reaffirmed sense of confidence.
“I feel very comfortable with where we are right now,” senior safety Shelton Johnson said. “Especially comparing this spring with last spring where we were, I think we’re light years ahead of where we were last spring.”
Lining up across from the offensive backups, the top defensive unit put consistent pressure on quarterback Joe Brennan and limited him to just 24 yards through the air. Cardinal defensive backs were persistent in saying glued to receivers as Brennan connected on just two of his 11 pass attempts.
The No. 1 defensive line earned an “AB” grade from senior defensive end Brendan Kelly and registered a sack from junior defensive tackle Beau Allen. Both Allen and Pat Muldoon made tackles behind the line of scrimmage to affirm the only points scored by the No. 2 offense came through field goal competitions between every quarter.
Lewis found holes early against UW’s top run-stoppers, but as the game progressed, the front four that lost only one starter from last season stepped up its level of play. Holding the White team’s top running back, Jeff Lewis, to an average of just 1.5 yards per touch, Kelly saw this ability to thwart the ground game as a positive sign for a stronger defensive presence this fall than in 2011.
“As a D-line, a collective unit, we can get a lot more TFLs (tackles for loss) and pressure on quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “Last year we were getting pressure at times, but we didn’t turn them into sacks, and we’re hoping to turn those pressure into sacks and plays that weren’t there into pressures.”
Other than allowing wide receiver Chase Hammond to power across the goal line late in the first quarter, the White squad’s secondary was able to keep its more experienced offensive counterparts from building an explosive rhythm. Led by redshirt sophomore Jameson Wright with a team-high seven tackles, the No. 2 defensive backs gave up 135 passing yards to Stave but made several key stops near the end of the game.
That late push was capped late in the fourth quarter with an interception from safety Darius Feaster, who anticipated the route and swooped in early on the quarterback’s throw to cut short any hopes of another touchdown drive.
But Wisconsin’s No. 1 defensive backs also displayed a new quickness in jumping routes and not allowing the offense to pick up critical yards after reeling in a catch.
“As a secondary we’re trying to be a little bit more aggressive on balls rather than just waiting for plays to come to us,” Johnson said. “The way Coach [Chris] Ash has us breaking out of the posts … it definitely allows us to be more aggressive and make more plays on the ball.”
Keefer shows promising potential
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the defensive side of the ball Saturday afternoon was the play of redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Keefer.
One of the Badgers’ most anticipated recruits of the 2011 class, Keefer finished with six tackles, several of them coming at or behind the line of scrimmage. Lining up at outside linebacker, a departure from his natural spot at middle linebacker, Keefer was one of the few members of the White defense quick enough to keep Gordon from darting down the sidelines.
“He’s a very intriguing player to me because he’s only a redshirt freshman,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s potentially got the size to get bigger or stay where he’s at.
“He runs, he hits, he goes harder than most people go and just has an opportunity to make more plays.”
Despite matching up with the Badgers’ mammoth No. 1 offensive line, Keefer said he used the moves he has continued to learn and develop this spring to disrupt the Cardinal’s offense. The increased skill of those standing opposite him seemed to motivate the Woodville, Wis., native to step up his play accordingly.
“Giving a little rip move to get past those lineman, because those guys are some pretty big dudes, so you really got to bring it,” Keefer said. “If you’re just going to go half [speed], those guys are going to put you on your back every time.”