Badger defense eats up turnovers
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda didn't have to wait long to see one of his tenets followed beautifully.
UW's defense needed only three plays to force its first turnover of the season.
Linebackers Brendan Kelly and Chris Borland combined to tackle Massachusetts tailback Stacey Bedell for no gain; Kelly ripped the ball loose with his left arm; and linebacker Ethan Armstrong hustled from the back side of the play to recover the fumble at the UMass 35.
“That was definitely the way they coached it,” Armstrong said Monday before practice. “A lot of guys were flying to the ball. Brendan and Chris wrapped him up, went for the ball and I was there to pick it up.”
What made Armstrong's recovery impressive is that he wasn't the third or even fourth defender to the ball.
Kelly defeated the block of the strong-side tight end and got penetration to the inside. Borland used quickness to avoid the block of the pulling guard and the two defenders met at Bedell. Safety Michael Caputo, who played a solid game, and linebacker Derek Landisch converged on the play but didn't see the loose ball.
Armstrong was lined up on the wide side of the field, about 2 or 3 yards inside the far hash. He pursued the play from the backside and recovered the fumble only because he never stopped running.
“The first part is effort, just getting to the ball,” Armstrong said when asked to detail some of the factors involved in forcing turnovers. “The more guys we can have around the ball the more opportunities we're going to have to rip it out.
“Then it's always the second guy in has to have the focus of: the first guy secure the tackle; the second guy go for the football.
“That has been a point of emphasis. Coach Aranda brought that in in the spring and it has been a constant ever since.”
UW, which hosts Tennessee Tech at 11 a.m. Saturday, forced two turnovers in the 45-0 victory over UMass. The second came in the third quarter when UMass quarterback Mike Wegzyn, under duress, forced the ball into coverage near the UW sideline.
Armstrong was in position to intercept the pass but freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton, up the field from Armstrong, made a leaping catch to give UW the ball at its 22.
“We did disrupt the quarterback,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “In my opinion we took the quarterback out of the football game. That doesn't have to be from sacks. It doesn't have to be from hitting him.
“It is from confusing him and letting him know that the clock in his mind…when he gets to 2 seconds he better be thinking, 'I better get rid of this football or I'm going to get hit.'
“I think you saw that in the second half especially.”
As they have in previous seasons, the UW players go through a circuit in practice during which they work on stripping the ball and then recovering the fumble.
“It is a two-part process and the second part is just as important,” defensive end Ethan Hemer said. “Because you can cause lots of balls on the ground, but you've got to get them.
“You try to not fall on top of it because it could go anywhere. You try to scoop it in.”
A statistic new to the UW players this season is one Aranda brought with him from Utah State. The defensive staff charts the number of rip/strip attempts for each player. The more the merrier, of course.
“Dave has done a tremendous job of emphasizing that,” Andersen said. “As a coordinator I never did.
“If we're just talking about passes, I just talked about getting our hands on the ball. As far as the strip attempts, you count the things the stats count (fumbles) is what I did.
“Dave has taken a whole other step to that, the amount of rips and the strips. You see it in a game. You see it in practice.
“It is a great way to do it. The kids like it. They've bought into it.”
Wait and see on Watt
Although the health status of fullback Derek Watt remains uncertain, it appears as if Andersen is preparing to rest his starter against Tennessee Tech.
“We'll have to wait and see,” Andersen said Monday when asked about Watt, who suffered a strained left hamstring in the opener. “The big thing is to get him healthy. The last thing you want is a re-occurrence of an injury…with a hamstring situation.”
Redshirt sophomore Derek Straus, a walk-on from Waunakee High School, took over at fullback after Watt was injured covering a kickoff.
“Straus came in and did some good things,” Andersen said, adding the staff will get freshman Austin Ramesh ready to play this week.
Andersen didn't see a significant drop-off in the running game after Watt was replaced by Straus. However, Watt has become by far the team's best blocking fullback.
“The run game stayed effective, (but) Watt has such a good knack of positioning,” Andersen said. “You don't have to be a killer blocker every single time as a fullback. The positioning of the blocking is so important.”