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Wisconsin defense thrives despite “sudden change” situations

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T.J. Edwards’s pick-six also highlighted another impressive outing for Jim Leonhard’s unit.

Maryland v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

MADISON — It was familiar territory for the Wisconsin Badgers’ defense at the end of the first quarter.

After Maryland Terrapins defensive end Brett Kulka forced a Jonathan Taylor fumble at the Wisconsin five-yard line, the Terps were in prime position for a touchdown to tie the game at 7–7.

Four plays later and with zero yards gained by Maryland, Wisconsin’s defense held the Terps to a 23-yard field goal by Henry Darmstadter to contain the scoring threat and maintain the lead. That ability eventually paved the way for Wisconsin’s 38–13 win.

“At that time, it’s always good to go out and put your foot down and make a stand,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “To hold them to three in that moment is such a big energy boost for this team. We all kind of feed off that.”

When dealing with “sudden change” situations this season—including six fumbles, six interceptions, and a blocked punt—Wisconsin’s defense has responded by allowing only two touchdowns and three field goals in 13 opponent drives.

“We don’t get too worried about wherever the ball is,” defensive end Alec James said. “We just kind of go out there and do our job.”

Maryland tried to utilize two of its biggest weapons, wide receiver D.J. Moore and running back Ty Johnson, on that brief drive to no avail.

Quarterback Max Bortenschlager threw a fade route to Moore on first down, but cornerback Nick Nelson forced the talented wideout—who came into the game leading the Big Ten in a number of receiving categories—out of bounds before he could get a foot in.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland’s offense then tried to run the ball with Johnson, who recorded 100-yard games against the likes of Texas and Minnesota. A pack of Badgers led by safety D’Cota Dixon and defensive end Conor Sheehy—both captains—stopped the back for no gain.

On third down, Bortenschlager again went to his left in trying to locate Moore, but overthrew him with Nelson covering. Replays showed Nelson did appear to have a hold on Moore’s right shoulder.

“We just had to step up and make a play. Like I said, the possession wasn’t over just because they started on the five[-yard line],” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “It doesn’t mean they have to get six. We just stuck in there, made a couple of plays, and finished them off in the red zone.”

Just last week in Wisconsin’s 17–9 win over Purdue, defensive coordinator’s Jim Leonhard’s unit had to withstand three offensive turnovers and a blocked punt. The Badgers only gave up three points off of those turnovers, with the Boilermakers missing their field goal attempt off of the blocked punt.

“I just think our guys have such a strong will, and we know adversity is going to strike at any part of the game,” Edwards said. “So I think just having that confidence that they’re not in until they’re in, and we’ve been able to get it done so far.”

Wisconsin came into the game among the top 10 in the nation in several categories, including scoring defense (fifth, 13.3 points per game), total defense (sixth, 265 yards per game), and rushing yards (fourth, 78.8 yards per game).

During Saturday’s win, the Badgers held the Terrapins to only 268 yards and 13 points.

Like in past weeks, a key aspect to their success was halting the momentum of the opposing offense.

“I think they’re a good defense,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think the coaches give them a good plan, but they relish those moments. We’ve got to stop letting them feel it that many times, but I think they compete. That’s the biggest thing, is they compete. You’ve got some guys that get big in those moments.”

Edwards pick-six a “spark” for Wisconsin

The first game-changing play for Wisconsin’s defense on Saturday came on a 3rd-and-12 from the UW 49-yard line early in the first quarter. Maryland drove the ball down the field with two quick first downs before nose tackle Olive Sagapolu sacked Bortenschlager for a loss of 10 yards.

Two plays later, Edwards caught his third interception of the year, eluded the tackle of a Maryland player, and took it 54 yards for a touchdown to put Wisconsin up 7–0.

“I’m just surprised I only got caught by one guy,” Edwards said. “Honestly, my defensive line did a great job on getting their hands on the ball, and the ball came right to me. They were right there blocking right next to me as well so they did some of that, too.”

Pressure from Wisconsin came in the form of redshirt senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley, who worked from the outside in on a four-man rush and found a direct lane to pop Bortenschlager as he threw.

The pass hit off James’s right shoulder pad, with its trajectory sending it into Edwards’s arms.

After shaking the attempted tackle of a Maryland player, the 6’1, 244-pound Edwards sprinted towards the north end zone with a convoy of blockers for Wisconsin’s fourth pick-six of the season. According to UW, the four interception returns for touchdowns are the most the Badgers have registered in a single season since 1950.

The redshirt junior, who recorded five tackles on the game, didn’t necessarily feel he was in the clear after that.

“I was nervous,” Edwards said. “I was running for my life it felt like just because I’m not the fastest guy out there so I just assumed. But when I was just running, saw my teammates next to me blocking. It was a good feeling once I got to the end zone.”

Through seven games, Edwards leads the team in interceptions (three), is the second-leading tackler (38), and has the third-most tackles for loss (4.5).

“T.J. is a really good football player,” Chryst said. “I think that what I’ve enjoyed seeing is that he doesn’t mind being one of those guys to spark our team, not just our defense.

“He works at it, and I think he trusts his preparation, goes out and he has fun playing. He’s really enjoyable to be around.”