The Young and the Restless: Newcomers in Wisconsin secondary itching for 1st road game experience

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Despite an impressive first two games, Wisconsin fans can find many reasons to doubt a young secondary heading into Saturday's matchup with Arizona State. The Badgers aren't nearly as worried.

MADISON -- True freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton relished his first opportunity to play in Camp Randall Aug. 31. He was already in the starting lineup for a top-25 team, and he even hauled in his first career interception by day's end.

"I can't even remember how the crowd sounded," he said of his third-quarter pick against UMass. "I was that excited."

He expects an even greater thrill this week at Arizona State, when thousands of fans are against him instead of cheering him on. In fact, that's how he prefers it -- the blackout, southern heat and new surroundings notwithstanding.

Not only will Shelton and many other young members of the Wisconsin secondary play against far tougher competition than they've seen in their first two games, but Saturday will also mark the first time they play a road game as major college football players. The Badgers can only hope the rest of the unit has the same mentality as Shelton.

"Just playing here my first game was very exciting for me, but this is going to be one of the most exciting moments of my life," Shelton said. "That's the one thing that I've been looking forward to the most. I've always liked going on the road, even in high school, and just playing in another environment. There's no better feeling than to go somewhere where you have people cheering against you and be able to take over their turf."

Safeties coach Bill Busch and cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland both praised the development of their numerous freshmen and new starters after Wednesday's practice, and rightfully so. A defense can't produce back-to-back shutouts -- regardless of competition -- if key members of the secondary aren't pulling their weight. Through the small sample size of two games, Wisconsin even ranks eighth nationally in passing defense.

"Playing in front of 80,000 is something I had never done before until the first couple games, so that was an experience I needed to have. To have those under my belt, I feel a lot more comfortable." -Leo Musso

Still, many fans are waiting to see how the group handles a road game against a team like the Sun Devils, who have proven they can use the passing game to stretch the field. Arizona State threw for 365 yards and five touchdowns last week in a 55-0 victory over Sacramento State after ranking 43rd in passing yards per game in 2012.

"They're by far the most talented team we've seen to date," Busch said. "They have the ability to make you miss, but the big thing they do is they can stretch you vertical so well because they've got such top-end speed. They do an unbelievable job in their routes, and their play-action routes are what really make the difference. It's really impressive."

Busch and Strickland also said without any hesitation that they aren't worried about those players who will be making their first road trip this weekend. Strickland called his group of young corners "mature beyond their years" and noted that they've been through the type of adverse situations expected in a big road game.

"I think those guys understand that we have great confidence in them," Strickland said. "There's always going to be adversity, whether it's by the environment, by giving up a play, whatever it is. But you've got to learn from it and then move on, and I think our guys have done a good job of training for that during the course of practices and the other games, that, hey, if things come up, don't let it phase you. You push forward and understand that you've got to play the next snap for your team."

That's why playing two home games to open the season before heading into this week's matchup may have been a great thing for the Badgers' secondary.

"Playing in front of 80,000 is something I had never done before until the first couple games, so that was an experience I needed to have," freshman safety Leo Musso said. "To have those under my belt, I feel a lot more comfortable.

"Obviously it's going to be a hostile environment, but I think that's something we're ready for. You've just got to have the mentality of us against the world going in there."

It could take some time before knowing whether Wisconsin's young secondary is truly prepared for Saturday's contest. That confidence could waver after the long plane ride, after the player introductions and after seeing the seats around them fill with the black shirts of another fan base.

Shelton, though, believes those factors disappear after the opening kickoff.

"As a player, you don't even start to notice those things once you get on the field," he said. "The most important thing is that we've worked hard for this week. As we keep progressing and as we continue to watch film a little more, I know we'll be ready and we'll come out with the (win). I think overall, as a team, we're ready to go out there and take control."

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