On Saturday, Wisconsin’s defense had its second best day in program history. The defense gave up a minuscule 66 yards of offense to Iowa and held them to 0-13 on third down conversions. It was a historic defensive day for Wisconsin that also saw them clinch a spot in the Big Ten Championship game.
“That was a heck of a performance by our defense. Credit to the coaches for the plan and obviously the players forgoing out there and executing it,” head coach Paul Chryst said.
Looking at just the game plan and the statline for the defense would not even come close to doing justice for just how dominant this defense has been.
On Saturday, coming into their biggest match up in the season thus far, Wisconsin’s defense was without two of their best players and play makers. Star safety D’Cota Dixon was held out with a leg injury after trying to go during warmups. He was joined on the sideline by linebacker Chris Orr who is out indefinitely with a leg injury.
For Wisconsin’s defense it was plug and replace.
Safety Joe Ferguson, who replaced Dixon, has exceeded all expectations filling in. In the first game of the season for Wisconsin, Ferguson got in during garbage time and returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown.
For a backup, it would have been the highlight of the season. But injury has provided even more opportunities for Ferguson. And the defense has not skipped a beat with their stars missing, in big part to the culture.
“I know me and Garrett [Rand] laugh about this all the time but we sometimes watch other defenses and their will be mistakes that we would not accept here,” Ferguson said. “Not saying those things don’t happen here but it’s just a brotherhood and a defense that we don’t like to tolerate. We hold each other accountable to a really high standard.”
Against Indiana, also filling in for an injured Dixon, Ferguson had two interceptions and one fumble recovery en route to a dominant overall Wisconsin performance.
The fact the culture and brotherhood bridges past the ranks of the starters and is just as important to the backups, has been crucial to a defense that could have been devastated with injuries.
“Since I’ve been here. You know Chris Borland and them all taught us that,” linebacker Leon Jacobs said of the defensive culture.
Jacobs was also crucial for making up for Orr’s lost play making ability. On Saturday Jacobs made the play of the game, scooping and scoring off of a fumble. He also tallied another fumble recovery and a sack in the win over Iowa.
“Incredible. That’s Leon though. I don’t think anybody would be surprised. He’s just a manimal out there. Throwing dudes off of him and making plays,” Ferguson said of Jacobs play making ability.
Before the season even got off of its feet, Wisconsin’s defense had to deal with devestating injury news. Star player, and possible the best player on the whole team, linebacker Jack Cichy suffered an ACL tear and was ruled out for the season.
Fellow linebacker Zach Baun also suffered a season killing injury.
Jacobs, who was moved from fullback back to his original position of outside linebacker this offseason, has been huge in making up for injuries.
For the backups who were never supposed to see the field, not making mental mistakes is crucial in ensuring continual success.
“I mean maybe it’s a shock, but I think we just rose to the challenge and felt like we did not have a single mental mistake out there,” Ferguson said.
But the defense is also having to deal with more than just injury adversity. Their offense is leaving quite a bit to be desired.
Against Iowa, the offense gave Iowa 14 points on pick-six’s and turned the ball over a total of five times. The defense would have to deal with short rest and unexpected play three times.
“It’s fun. I mean when something bad happens, I think out guys love responding to the challenge,” Ferguson said. “We all look at each other and we’re not angry at the offense, we’re not angry at each other or the situation, we’re just ready to see what we’re made of.”
On Saturday, the defense seeminly wanted the offense to have more turnovers as they were watering at the mouth for another opportunity to make a play and prove critics and pollsters wrong.
“We were hyped up. That was the third time we had to come out there so instead of getting mad we just riled up about it because we know we can play,” Jacobs said about coming back onto the field unexpectedly.
The defense did nothing but prove Wisconsin is a force to be reckoned with, and also proved they deserve a bump in the polls.
But with a chip on their shoulders, the defense is also ready to continue to prove itself.
“I would hope, but we’ll see,” Jacobs said with a smile and a laugh after being asked if Wisconsin would see a bump in their ranking.