Badgers in search of turnovers
Since giving up 252 passing yards to a questionable San Jose State offense, Wisconsin’s secondary has responded by limiting Arizona State to 211 passing yards and an overmatched Austin Peay to 115.
And it should be noted that Arizona State threw for 387 yards a week later against No. 4 Oregon in a 42-31 game the Sun Devils had numerous opportunities to win.
“Every day we come over to the complex, the goal is to improve,” Wisconsin secondary coach Chris Ash said of his group, which is giving up 170.8 passing yards per game. “We want to improve from the week before.”
The improvement now for No. 11 Wisconsin (4-0) and its defense will have to be in the turnover battle—a key area of emphasis as the Badgers prepare for their Big Ten opener Saturday at No. 24 Michigan State. Through four games, Wisconsin’s defense has intercepted only two passes and recovered one fumble—far short of its goal of two per game.
“It’s one of the top priorities we have on this team,” Ash said of the need to force turnovers. “It’s all about the football.
“On offense, we want to protect, and defensively we want to take it back. Everything we do in practice is geared toward that. Right now, we just haven’t created a lot of opportunities.”
Reviewing the film multiple times to chart potential opportunities for takeaways, Ash has seen “very few” chances for Wisconsin’s secondary to get an easy turnover, whether it be a poorly located pass, a throw into traffic or a bobble by either side.
Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren analyzes that the ball carrier usually went down after the first hit against Austin Peay. That took away the chance for a fumble when the ball carrier is struggling for extra yards and another player hits or strips out the ball.
“The offenses we’ve played haven’t made a lot of mistakes or put the ball on the ground,” Ash said. “We’ve got to help ourselves in that department a little bit. Usually it only takes one to get on a roll.”
Through four games, Michigan State has featured a mixture of run and pass, especially to receivers B.J. Cunningham (14 catches, 190 yards), Keshawn Martin (14-185) and Mark Dell (10-172). Those three had a combined 14 catches for 267 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-30 loss to Wisconsin last season and again will test the Badger secondary.
Michigan State also has shown to be mistaken prone, being penalized an average of nine times a game for 90 yards, while turning the ball over six times on four fumbles and two interceptions.
“Every team we play, there are always opportunities for fumbles,” said UW senior linebacker Culmer St. Jean. “A running back is going to let up, our defensive line could get a strip. or somebody is going to misread a coverage, and we can get an interception. We’d like to get a couple of those sooner than later.”
Although the Badger defense isn’t generating the turnovers, the offense isn’t creating them. Since committing four turnovers in its first two games, Wisconsin’s offense has been turnover-free since the third quarter against San Jose State two weeks ago. The last time UW had consecutive games without a turnover was the first three games of the 2007 season.
Because of that, Wisconsin’s turnover ratio has slowly improved to minus-.25 a game, tied for 66th nationally. The Spartans, despite their sloppiness with the ball, have a plus-1.25 ratio, putting them 14th in the country.
“The part that I’ve learned, sitting in my seat, it’s the ratio that matters,” UW coach Bret Bielema said. “Because we haven’t been giving it away, either, it’s probably not as glaring a statistic.”
One of the other explanations for the low turnovers has been the exceptional play of the Wisconsin defensive line breaking up passes before they have a chance to be intercepted or completed. Through four games, the Badgers have 19 pass breakups, eight coming from the defensive line and four from junior defensive end J.J. Watt.
With the ball still in the air, according to Doeren, it’s just a matter of time before one pops straight into the air for a Wisconsin player to grab, instead of bouncing 30 yards sideways.
“You’ve got to create them (turnovers) … and it’s something we’ve got to do better,” he said. “There’s no way I can accept (no turnovers). We’ve got to get two or three a game.
“Some of that’s luck, but if we keep breaking on it, they’ll turn into turnovers soon.”
The Badgers would like to think that “soon” means this Saturday.