CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On a grey and gloomy day, the Wisconsin secondary shined.
Led by junior cornerback Nick Nelson, the secondary took advantage of some horrendous play from frequently-shuffled Illinois quarterbacks Jeff George, Jr., and Cam Thomas, contributing heavily to Wisconsin’s 24–10 win on the road Saturday.
Illinois managed only 152 yards in the air on a combined 9-of-31 passing from George, Jr., and Thomas. Primary Illini receiving threat Ricky Smalling was held to just one catch for 26 yards. Receiver Mike Dudek managed three catches for 33 yards before leaving the game with an injury.
With the Illinois receivers getting little separation, Wisconsin’s front seven feasted, grabbing five sacks on the day.
Nelson was all over the field, breaking up four passes and nearly getting to Thomas on a blitz in the third quarter. With his 14th pass break-up of 2017, Nelson has now tied Jim Leonhard and Jamar Fletcher for fourth-place in school history in pass breakups in a season.
Nelson was not the only member of the Badgers’ secondary to shine. With junior safety D’Cota Dixon a late scratch during pre-game warm-ups, senior safety Joe Ferguson filled in admirably with two tackles and a fourth-quarter interception that took away Illinois’s last, best opportunity to get back into the game.
You go, Joe. @joeferg5 picks Cam Thomas and ends Illinois' drive, and @BadgerFootball looks like they're putting this one away: pic.twitter.com/ILy1iwyihl— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 28, 2017
“[Turnovers are] an emphasis in practice.” Ferguson said. “We are always thinking about the ball, and another thing is when someone does get a pick or fumble, everybody is juiced up and excited for them. It makes everyone else want to make a play.”
Freshman cornerback Dontye (“D-C-Dub”) Carriere-Williams broke up two passes of this own to along with three tackles. Senior cornerback Derrick Tindal got the defense rolling in the first quarter, picking off Thomas on the Illini’s first offensive series.
The Badgers finished the game with a season-high 10 passes defended.
Under defensive coordinator Leonhard, Wisconsin is in the top 10 nationally in interceptions and team passing efficiency defense. Eight different Badgers have now recorded interceptions this season.
Coming into the season, one of the big questions was going to be how the Badgers would replace Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton.
Nelson, Tindal, and the rest of the secondary have answered the call in a big way and Ferguson’s ability to step in without Wisconsin losing a beat demonstrates the depth of the unit.
With Wisconsin’s offense so inconsistent week-to-week, the Badgers will continue to look to their ball-hawking secondary to help carry the load.
“I think it’s knowing the defense and trusting it,” Ferguson said when asked how the secondary was able to keep grabbing turnovers.
“If you do the right things over and over and over, eventually something good will happen.”