Sophomore Sojourn Shelton and the Badgers know big plays -- ones they gave up and ones they didn't make -- will be a key to success this year.
Reversing a trend
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Gary Andersen will tell you that the University of Wisconsin was among the best in the country at limiting big plays by their opponent last year. And it’s not an inaccurate statement from the second-year coach.
Overall, the number of plays in which the other team gained 20 yards or more was lower in 2013 than in any of the Big Ten Championship years the previous three seasons. The 40 plays in 13 games last season was down one from 2012 in 14 games, and a significant decrease from 2011 (54) and 2010 (52). But when you take those 40 plays and dissect them, the trend is very easy to see. When the Badgers limited the explosive plays, UW usually won, and when they didn’t, they normally lost.
Of the 40 plays, 23 of them -- or 58 percent -- came in their four losses. Arizona State piled up seven, Ohio State had four, Penn State managed five and South Carolina put together seven. The other 17 were spread across the other nine games, including five at Illinois. That meant they allowed 5.75 big plays in the games they lost and 1.89 in games they won.
While Andersen touts UW’s overall success, his assistant coaches went to work this offseason to engrain in their players the importance of forcing the offense to use a lot of plays to move down the field as opposed to a quick strike.
“(Cornerbacks) coach (Ben) Strickland kind of broke it down with a chart of all the games we won and all the games we lost,” sophomore Sojourn Shelton said. “And in the games we lost, it was just one or two big plays that we had to make to win those games or put us in a better position (to win). Who knows the outcome, but it (would have) put us in a better position. That has been a major emphasis.”
36 of the 40 big plays came in the passing game, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. With three new starters on the back end, and a veteran front-seven, teams struggled to sustain long drives. And when they did, they rarely got into the endzone. Wisconsin allowed 10 scoring drives of double-digit plays and held their opponent to six field goals on those.
A year ago, UW finished 10th in the Big Ten and 92nd in the country with just nine interceptions. Now, with the secondary being the most veteran unit on the defense, they will be counted on to not only limit the big plays, but make a few of their own.
“You’re going to be expected to make those plays,” Strickland said this summer. “Don’t look around and expect Chris Borland or Dezmen Southward or guys like that to be able to make the plays, because they’re not here anymore.
“I think you look at the games that we played last year, that we came up short in, it was a matter of, and we don’t shy away from it, we had to make more plays in the back end. I think for us it’s that challenge this year, and it’s something we’re willing to embrace rather than try to run away from and hope it doesn’t happen.”
The style of defense employed under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda puts a lot of pressure on the secondary. The need for players that can play press coverage on the outside, sometimes with no safety help, is vital to the success of the unit.
“It allows us to be aggressive corners and that’s kind of the identity that we want to have,” junior Darius Hillary said. “We want to be the aggressors. Instead of waiting for the offense to do something for us adjust to, we want to be the ones that make the offense adjust. Same at wide receiver. We want to be those aggressors, and the players that I know we can be.”
Explosive plays happen for various reasons. Whether it’s a missed tackle – like the one safety Nate Hammon missed on Penn State’s Adam Breneman that resulted in a 68-yard touchdown – or a missed assignment.
Sometimes you have to tip your hat to the offense when they come on a perfect throw or amazing catch. Two of Braxton Miller’s touchdowns in the Buckeye’s 31-24 victory were the result of putting a ball right where it needed to be. But another – that put Ohio State up 24-14 with no time left in the first half – came as a result of a blown assignment. And the toughest thing for UW in that situation was that the previous play Shelton dropped an interception. Not only did the Badgers miss a chance to make a big play, but it allowed Ohio State another to chance to capitalize.
“Covering the deep balls, (and) getting in and out of our breaks just to give us that little bit of edge to change the game,” Shelton said. “That’s what us corners, and us in the secondary and us as a defense have to be able to do and provide to the team. We have to change the game.
“That’s what we’ve been working on from this spring to now, so I’m pretty excited to see where all our work has (gotten us). It’s time for it to show now. I’m excited, and we’re only a couple days away.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin