Wisconsin finds room for bye-week improvements

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin could be 4-1 heading into this weekend's bye -- perhaps a couple plays from 5-0 -- but the Badgers nevertheless have plenty to work on during their off week.

MADISON -- The situation couldn't have been much more deflating.

Freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton dropped a sure interception, and one play later Ohio State was cashing in on a blown coverage to take a 10-point lead with one second remaining in the half. Instead of heading into the locker room down just three points to the fourth-ranked team in the country Saturday in Columbus, Wisconsin kicked the ball to the Buckeyes to start the third quarter already down two scores.

"It was disheartening right before we got to the locker room. Leaders like Chris Borland really stepped up and took charge of that thing," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "I thought the second half was a great tribute to the players. They're a prideful group."

Although the end result was the Badgers' second loss of the season and a now-long-shot chance at another Big Ten title, Wisconsin played the second half like Aranda thought it would the entire game. The Badgers put themselves in position to win the game, and doing so only magnified the squandered opportunities earlier on.

"Adversity is going to come throughout the season. You just have to make sure that you bounce back and keep fighting." -Sojourn Shelton

It's one of many reasons why Week 6 seems a better time than ever to take a bye and regroup, not to mention the many Badgers that are nursing injuries or the importance of next week's game against Northwestern. While Wisconsin is spending a portion of practice preparing for the Wildcats, coaches and players say this week is about focusing on themselves.

For Aranda, there are clear-cut areas the Wisconsin defense needs to turn its attention to this week. After creating two turnovers in each of the first three games, the Badgers have forced just one since. The defensive coordinator said much of that falls on his shoulders as a play-caller, and that he expects to ratchet up the pressure moving forward.

"We've got to improve in that department," Aranda said. "At the beginning of the season, we were on the right track, and we've fallen off a little bit. We've got to renew the focus to get takeaways. We have to make big plays. I feel like when we've attempted to get pressure, we've been able to. I think that's more on me personally just calling it. I think we're headed in the right direction. We'll get better."

The biggest question mark coming into the season was Wisconsin's inexperienced secondary, a group that Aranda said has increasingly improved since Week 1. The Badgers rank 17th nationally in passing yards allowed per game and have only given up 200-plus passing yards one time (352 against Arizona State), but there are still consistency issues among the cornerbacks that Aranda would like the unit to clean up.

"My coach and I talked about getting back to the basics this week and improving," Shelton said. "Just start back from scratch and get better."

Points generally haven't been a difficult thing to come by for Wisconsin's offense through five games, and the running game has been the highlight of the season thus far. Running backs James White, Melvin Gordon and freshman Corey Clement have all proven talented enough to carry the offense if needed.

The Badgers' passing game, however, hasn't been able to match the stellar rushing attack, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig mentioned the need to improve on the drop-back passing game during the bye week. For the criticism it's received, though, Wisconsin has had its moments through the air, namely the almost-game-winning drive against Arizona State.

The Badgers rank fifth in the Big Ten with 217.4 passing yards per game and are seventh in the conference in completion percentage (61.7 percent). However, Wisconsin has converted just 32 percent (8-of-25) of its third downs in the past two games, a mark that would rank 10th in the conference and 104th nationally.

"I just, as a quarterback, have to be more consistent," quarterback Joel Stave said. "We've got to get a little better on third down. The first few weeks, we were pretty good on third down, and that's dropped a little bit the past two weeks, so we've just got to make sure we get better."

It's been quite the up-and-down ride through five games for the Badgers, who have reason to believe they're only a couple plays from spending their off week at 5-0 instead of 3-2. If anything, though, the first half of the season has been a character-building experience.

"It just shows that we're going to fight no matter what situation we're in, and I think that's something that our coaches have been stressing," Shelton said. "Adversity is going to come throughout the season. You just have to make sure that you bounce back and keep fighting.

"We're a hard-working team, a team that's going to hit you in the mouth and keep fighting no matter what situation that we're put in, no matter what the score is."

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