For years, Wisconsin football has been anchored by a steady diet of power run plays and an elite defense.
A dominant runningback fuels the power runs, but what fuels the steady defense can vary from season to season, game to game.
With injuries limiting the depth at linebacker, the presumed anchor position for the defense was left open. Enter the versatile safeties D’Cota Dixon and Natrell Jamerson.
The experienced due showed out on Saturday in the game against Northwestern, leading the defense to a dominant performance and sealing the victory for Wisconsin.
“Really proud of the way the guys played and fought together and found a way to win. Obviously a big play, you know, guys like D’Cota [Dixon], that last play on the safety. There’s a lot of guys who put it out there,” head coach Paul Chryst said.
Dixon, who was a key player on last years team has continued to be a leader. Against Northwestern he had a career high 12 total tackles, 2.0 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss as he ended the weekend earning National Defensive Player of the week honors.
Normally a defensive back will lead the way for a team by getting interceptions, disrupting the pass game. On Saturday, however, Dixon was truly a position-less player.
“I mean it’s great. Like you could him at D-Line, he could attack like he a D-lineman when he’s down there,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “Put him at linebacker and he like a linebacker when he is in there. He can field the run and you put him at safety and he can cover just as well.”
In fact Dixon is viewed as such a good blitzer by his teammates, that they willingly change to play calls to send him into the thick of it.
“It’s a very big impact to have him on defense and we can put him at different spots. And shoot, they’ll be sometimes when I have a blitz called for me and I’ll switch and tell D’Cota to go down and blitz and I’ll just cover. Cause that’s what D’Cota does,” Tindal said.
Dixon made those opportunities count on impactful ways. One of his sacks came on a third down. Overall, Wisconsin’s defense dominated third down allowing Northwestern to convert only three of their 15 chances.
On back to back plays in the first quarter, Dixon also made back to back open field tackles, one for a loss. The series of plays slowed an early drive by Northwestern who started with favorable field position. His most important play came in the final minutes of the game when he sacked Northwestern’s quarterback Clayton Thorson for a safety.
Dixon’s safety sealed the win for Wisconsin, but it would have never have happened without the play of his partner in crime.
On the play before the safety, Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti boomed a punt close to the goal line. Jamerson, who also starts on special teams as a gunner, beat his defender and was able to get under Lotti’s punt. He downed it at the two yard line, setting up the dagger that was Dixon’s safety.
Plays that may go unremembered by the general fan, are plays that coaches will always remember.
“Natrell [Jamerson] brings so much to this team and has been doing it for a while now. Two years ago he was our special teams player of the year. What you appreciate from him is that now that he’s in a starting role, what he thinks about and how he approaches the special teams is every bit as important as it was when he was first breaking in, playing, and as you know, we’re going to need all the guys,” Chryst said.
“There are good examples of players like [Natrell] that will do anything for this team. And you get into games — we’re going to have a lot more close games — that we’re going to need plays such as that. Doesn’t matter how it comes, what unit it comes on, we’re going to need everyone.”
Special teams is perhaps the most important aspect of winning the field position battle. So often an after thought to most, Jamerson has continued to value its importance.
“It’s just the same as on offense or defense. Special teams, it controls the field so downing the punt right on the two yard line and then it lead to a safety so you gotta be good on special teams,” Jamerson said
With D’Cota disrupting the pass game by rushing the quarterback, Jamerson picked up the slack in the passing coverage, which has been spotty at times earlier in the season.
He would finish the game with two interceptions, one of which he busted to the endzone. Jamerson’s pick six proved crucial as Northwestern refused to go away in the fourth quarter. Not to let Dixon get all the spot light in the quarterback pressure department, Jamerson also added 1.0 sacks to his already stellar day.
“Aye man, he did his thing today. That’s my dawg,” Tindal said of his defensive backfield teammate.
Early into the season, the defensive backfield has been anything but steady. In the first two non-conference games they gave up huge chunk plays, letting lesser opponents stick around in games they had no business being in.
But they have bounced back every game, coming out in the second half with a presence that only veterans who have been there before can bring.
“Adversity’s going to hit and we have to respond. And that’s exactly what we did,” Jamerson said.