Wisconsin defense eager to set tone
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
LINCOLN, Neb.--They are greedy and unapologetic about their collective desire.
Members of Wisconsin’s defense aren’t ashamed to acknowledge they want to take the field before UW’s offense, and they become antsy when they open the game on the sideline.
“As our defense is set up,” senior end Alec James said, “I just like how we set the tone.”
Senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley concurs.
“We have the utmost confidence in our defense to get a three and out,” Dooley said, “get a turnover, get the ball back to our offense as quickly as possible.”
Three and outs? Check.
Early turnover? Check.
Get the ball back to the offense quickly? Check.
Despite the fact that Jim Leonhard is the team’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons, four starters are new and two key seniors are out because of injury, UW is again ranked among the best units in the country.
UW (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) enters its showdown at 7 p.m. tonight at Nebraska (3-2, 2-0) No. 4 nationally in total defense (247.0 ypg.) and tied for No. 8 in scoring defense (13.5 ppg.).
“Not to take anything away from our defensive coordinators,” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said, “but I think it is time for people to realize that it’s the players. All Coach Leonhard can do is give us the calls. It is up to us to go out there and make the plays.
“He does a great job emphasizing things, making sure we’re hustling, making sure we’re doing what we’ve got to do. But at the end of the day ... I mean, we’ve had three coordinators and we’re still doing the same things.
“I just feel like people need to start respecting the (players) and realize not only is there great coaching but there are great players. ...
“He always emphasizes that to us. He says it’s about the players between the lines.”
Those players have been outstanding on their opening series of each game this season.
UW’s defense has been on the field for the first series in two games and for the second series in two.
The results have been similar.
UW has allowed a combined 36 yards and one first down on 16 plays, 2.3 yards per play, on its opening series so far this season.
Utah State picked up the lone first down, in the opener before punting. Florida Atlantic went three and out. Inside linebacker T.J. Edwards ended BYU’s first series after three plays with a third-down interception. Northwestern managed the only score but settled for a field goal after recovering a fumble at the UW 24.
Outside linebacker Leon Jacobs kept it to a field goal by coming across the line of scrimmage unblocked to tackle tailback Justin Jackson for a 1-yard loss on third and 1 at the 15.
“Overall, personnel (across) the board, and with what they’re doing, it’s probably the best,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said, comparing UW’s defense to others the Cornhuskers have faced this season. “The other team, with some outstanding people and very good athleticism defensively was Oregon.
“We’ve seen those types of athletes, but when you’re talking about the big picture, playing team defense, being in sync, this is the best football team and the best all-around offense, defense, put together, the best team we’ve seen.”
The players aren’t surprised.
Dooley (4 ½ sacks, 7 ½ tackles for a loss and 17 total tackles) and Jacobs (five tackles for a loss, 18 tackles), both full-time starters for the first time, have set the edge of the defense and made plays in the backfield.
Despite the season-ending knee injury suffered by Jack Cichy, the inside linebacker trio of Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly have been solid.
The defensive linemen have done their jobs, despite losing senior end Chikwe Obasih (knee) after the opener.
The secondary, which combines speed and hard hitters, has been outstanding.
“We’ve got weapons, weapons all over the field,” said redshirt junior safety D’Cota Dixon, who secured the victory over Northwestern by sacking quarterback Clayton Thorson in the end zone. “And we really pride ourselves on our defense.”
And they want to take the field first, though no one has mustered the courage to tell head coach Paul Chryst that the team should open every game on defense.
“I think he gets that vibe from us,” Edwards said, grinning. “We just like setting the tone.”