The University of Wisconsin football team’s defense entered the 2016 season as the top scoring defense a year ago. But with a new defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox and Jim Leonhard taking over the secondary unit, along with the loss of three of four starters on the back end, most did not expect UW to achieve the same level of success on the defensive side of the ball.
The Badgers’ (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) defense has been just as good, if not better, as last year’s unit, entering Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game against No. 7 Penn State (10-2, 8-1) with the third-ranked scoring defense in the country on the sixth-ranked team in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Those rankings are thanks, in large part, to the defense and its penchant for turning opponents over this season.
Football: Wisconsin remains at No. 6 in second-to-last College Football Playoff pollAfter the final results from rivalry weekend served the College Football Playoff Selection Committee its worst nightmare on a silver Read…
The Wisconsin defense has racked up 21 interceptions this season, while the last two seasons combined saw just 18 passes fall into Badger defenders hands. Over the team’s last three games, although against lesser opponents in Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota, the Badgers have a massive 11 interceptions.
For senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who has four interceptions this season, sometimes it’s as simple as just catching the ball. The last two seasons, Shelton said, he left a lot of interceptions on the stat sheet because of drops.
“I dropped a lot of picks between my sophomore and junior year,” Shelton said following UW’s win over Minnesota last weekend.
Fifth-year senior safety Leo Musso leads the Badgers with five interceptions, which is tied for eighth in the country. His fellow safety D’Cota Dixon has four. Musso said Leonhard’s arrival, along with the defense’s goal of taking the next step of not just forcing punts but giving the offense better field position, has led to the spike in picks.
UW head coach Paul Chryst said the interceptions, ultimately, come down to players making plays. The fact that the Badgers work on it consistently makes those plays easier, he added, and that a consistent pass-rush, which UW possesses, also helps in creating poor decisions or errant throws that lead to interceptions.
“The coaches do a good job of not just practicing and stressing takeaways, but kind of the approach to looking for the opportunities and seizing it,” Chryst said. “Whether it’s playing eyes or situations.”
This season, UW has only recovered four fumbles, meaning more than 75 percent of Wisconsin’s turnovers forced have been interceptions. The Badgers’ turnover margin of +0.75 ranks 13th in the nation and second in the Big Ten.
Derrick Tindal, a junior cornerback who plays opposite Shelton, has three interceptions on the year. Tindal said the trust the defensive players have in one another is another reason for the uptick in interceptions, citing Musso’s interception against Illinois when the ball kicked up from Shelton’s foot into his hands. It was Shelton’s trust in Musso that he would be providing over-the-top coverage that made the play possible, Tindal said.
“You trust that everybody does their job,” Tindal said. “Once you trust that, you going to make plays because you’re going to be in the right spot because I know Sojourn doing his job, I know Leo is doing his job, I know D’Cota is doing his job.
Badgers receive all-Big Ten honors
Several UW players earned all-Big Ten honors this week, and Chryst was named Big Ten Coach of the Year by his fellow coaches. Penn State’s James Franklin earned the honor from the conference’s media.
First team: Ryan Ramczyk (unanimous), Corey Clement (coaches), T.J. Watt (unanimous), Sojourn Shelton (media)
Second team: Corey Clement (media), Sojourn Shelton (coaches), Vince Biegel (coaches), Beau Benzschawel (coaches), Troy Fumagalli (coaches)
Third team: Conor Sheehy (coaches), Vince Biegel (media), Beau Benzschawel (media), Leo Musso (media), D’Cota Dixon (media)
Honorable mention (coaches): Jack Cichy, Michael Dieter, D’Cota Dixon, T.J. Edwards, Alec James, Leo Musso, Chikwe Obasih, Jazz Peavy, Derrick Tindal
Honorable mention (media): Jack Cichy, Michael Dieter, T.J. Edwards, Chikwe Obasih, Jazz Peavy, Conor Sheehy, Derrick Tindal
Musso was Wisconsin’s pick for the Sportsmanship Award.