MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and his players never wavered in confidence to continue the excellence of Wisconsin’s defensive program.
Going into the fifth game of the season against Michigan, the Wisconsin defense ranks seventh in the nation for points allowed by an opposing offense with 11.75 points. The defense’s consistent ability to pressure the opponent’s offense, showcase their physicality, and make big plays is what defines them and characterizes them as a Wisconsin defense.
“I think they’re very gritty,” first year Wisconsin secondary coach and former NFL player Jim Leonhard said of the defense. “They don’t necessarily care who gets credit, who makes the play. They’re going to play hard, and they’re going to put it all out there. They’re going to be physical and make you beat them every single snap.”
Head coach Paul Chryst stressed multiple times the key to Wisconsin defense’s success is everyone doing their job to produce one cohesive unit.
“When we’re playing good defense, it’s because every guy is doing their 1/11th. They’re doing their job,” Chryst said in Monday’s press conference.
Against Michigan State last week, it appeared not only was everyone doing their job, but they were also analyzing schemes and making big plays out of them. Two senior players, cornerback Sojourn Shelton and safety Leo Musso, both had a good game and came up big against a high-ranked Michigan State offense.
Shelton, who had a big first half interception last week, said the key to the secondary was their ability to communicate on and off the field.
“We are a group that has a lot of chemistry,” Shelton said. “We’re really close, goofing around a lot. At the same time, we know when we need to lock in and be serious, and we do that.”
Shelton felt his preparation and practice for Michigan State was reflected in his performance. His biggest strength is his confidence in the position.
“It’s just a mindset of being confident,” It’s [being cornerback] the toughest position in football besides the quarterback which is the mental aspect. As far physically and playing, I say cornerback is the toughest position.”
Musso showed his athleticism and a bit of his offensive side on Saturday when he returned a fumble for 66 yards and a touchdown. Musso right away praised his teammates out front for forcing the fumble and giving him the blocks, but no one could deny that he showed his speed in the fumble return.
“It was kind of nostalgic a little bit,” Musso, who played running back in high school, said. “It was kind of like the old part of me came out, and it was kind of cool to see that I had that in me.”
“He plays fast. There’s no question about it,” Leonhard said. “He does a great job getting our secondary and our defense as a whole lined up to where we can have success every single play.”
“It’s a lonely world sometimes there at corner,” Leonhard said of Shelton. “To me, it’s technique, and he has that. Then it’s what’s inside of you. It’s are you willing to go out there and compete and challenge receivers, and he’s done a great job of doing that through the first four weeks, and we need him to continue to do that especially the next couple weeks.”
Wisconsin’s front seven has made the secondary’s job much easier with their great coverage of opposing offenses.
“I tell those guys all the time they make my job easier or harder,” Shelton said. “So far, they are making my job really easy.”
The linebacking corps specifically has excelled the season with the pairing of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel at outside linebacker.
“As an outside linebacker, you want to be balanced. You want to have two strong rushers on the edge. To be able to have a complimentary piece on the other side is very important,” Biegel said on the outside linebacker combination.
Watt performed very well last Saturday, making 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. Both Watt and Biegel stressed that the only way to play the game is to have fun with it.
That pairing of Biegel and Watt, however, will be incomplete for 2-4 weeks with Biegel being out with a foot injury. Biegel’s injury is a big loss to the Wisconsin defense and the overall confidence in the unit. That being said, the group is already used to overcoming adversity and injury only four games into the season. Inside linebacker Jack Cichy will most likely move to outside linebacker, and Ryan Connelly, who started for T.J. Edwards when he sustained a foot injury in fall camp, will probably start at inside linebacker again opposite Edwards.
Adversity has only made the team stronger so far this season. And the most frightening part of the Wisconsin defense is they’re able to adjust and continue to improve and make plays.
“We are still scratching the surface,” Watt said.
So what best defines the Wisconsin defense?
“We are a smart defense, a tough defense, and a defense that trusts each other, just dependable,” Shelton said.
“A big team,” Michigan’s head coach Jim Harbaugh said in his Monday press conference. “I’m wondering if the field’s going to be wide enough. They play extremely hard. It’s a team of Chris Borland’s. High, high energy, tough guys that can run, and a big, physical team.”
#8 Wisconsin kicks off against #4 Michigan on Saturday at 2:30pm CT.