Badgers defensive backs vow to improve Saturday
MADISON The University of Wisconsin football team’s early defensive numbers rang out pretty clearly last Saturday.
With Badgers giving up almost the same amount of passing yardage in the first half against Fresno State (172) as their entire first game against Northern Illinois (174), secondary coach Kerry Cooks did not mince words when he addressed his players at halftime.
“He said that was the worst we had played since he got here,” sophomore Devin Smith admitted, as the secondary let FSU’s Ryan Colburn throw three touchdown passes in the opening 30 minutes of his second career start.
“Everybody needed to get their eyes in the right place because the points that were on the board were because of the secondary.”
Wisconsin responded in the second half, limiting Colburn to 117 yards and one touchdown, while forcing him into three interceptions as the Badgers rallied for a 34-31 victory in double overtime. But overall, it was a performance that made Sunday’s film session quite uncomfortable for the UW parties involved.
“Yeah, that wasn’t much fun, either,” Smith admitted.
When Wisconsin faces Wofford here Saturday in the final nonconference game before the Big Ten season begins next week, Cooks plans to take advantage of the depth at his position and go with a “cornerback-by-committee” approach to get the best players on the field.
“My philosophy right now is that I’ve got four guys that are talented enough,” Cooks said of his cornerbacks. “The advantage that I have is all those guys have experience of playing.
“The committee approach makes them stay fresh and stay mentally into it, which allows them to focus. Now, if I have a guy that’s hot and is playing his tail off, I’m obviously going with him and let him roll until he makes a mistake.”
After rotating cornerbacks Allen Langford, Niles Brinkley and Mario Goins last season, Cooks has relied on sophomores Antonio Fenelus, Aaron Henry and Smith, along with Brinkley, a junior, to fill in the void left by Langford’s graduation and Goins transferring.
While Wisconsin held Northern Illinois’ passing attack in check, adversity was the theme in Week 2 against the Bulldogs.
Henry woke up early on game day throwing up, another casualty of the flu outbreak. He tried to perform after receiving intravenous fluids but lasted only two series, being beaten for a touchdown on one of them.
Losing Henry forced Brinkley, who lost his starting job during fall camp, into action despite being limited throughout the week with a hamstring injury.
Fenelus and Smith, each making their second start, were beaten on touchdown passes in the second quarter. They either failed to trust their technique or were caught peaking into the backfield—big mistakes in Cooks’ teaching.
“We gave up 21 points in the first half, and it’s not like we gave up any big runs because they were just throwing the ball all over the place,” Henry said. “It was definitely frustrating, (but) it’s not what happens when you get beat. It’s how you respond to it, and we have responded.”
Since the dreaded first half, Cooks said Wisconsin’s secondary has been on a focused mission, taking a stronger approach to drills, technique and getting better as a unit.
Although Wofford is a run-oriented team, the Terriers throw occasionally. They have completed 10 of 23 passes for 109 yards in their first two games.
“The way they get you is they lull you to sleep,” Smith said. “Being DBs this week, we can’t be lulled to sleep. We need to be on top of our keys every single play and read the receivers. Once you fall asleep, that’s when they can hit you big.”
And the Badgers know how they must respond.
“We want to go out there and send a message,’’ Henry said. “At the end of day, we have to be the dictators.
“We want to beat every opponent, and we don’t want to leave anything out there.”
that will make us a liability.”