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Wisconsin’s defense rises to the challenge vs. Michigan

In their biggest test of the year, the Badgers’ defense thrived.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Rick Wood-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON — Sixty-five yards.

No, the Wisconsin Badgers did not allow just 65 total yards to the No. 24 Michigan Wolverines on Saturday, which would have been one yard less than what the Iowa Hawkeyes accumulated vs. the Badgers in four quarters last week.

Nonetheless, it was another great defensive performance, as Wisconsin (11–0, 8–0 Big Ten) contained Michigan (8–3, 5–3) to 234 yards, only 65 in the second half, in a 24–10 win at Camp Randall Stadium.

The Wolverines’ offense did make some plays on Saturday, especially in the first half through the air, but the Badgers’ defense once again stepped up and clamped down when needed.

“It’s just encouraging when you come in at halftime and know that you’re beating yourselves,” redshirt senior safety Ferguson said. “It’s not really them making plays over you, so we’re in there and we’re just saying, ‘OK, let’s be a little more focused and things are going to work out.’ Then, that first drive, something good happens and it’s kind of affirming what we talked about, and then just build off of that the entire game.”

Michigan appeared to get on track the last few games with the emergence of quarterback Brandon Peters and the reliance on a power running game.

The Wolverines came in averaging 207.8 yards per game on the ground, third-best in the conference. On Saturday, the Badgers held them to just 58, the fewest Jim Harbaugh’s offense has gained this season.

“Yeah, because we knew coming into the game they were going to run a lot of 22 personnel, 23 personnel, and they were going to try to run the ball on us,” outside linebacker Leon Jacobs said. “I thought we did a good job of stopping them.”

Inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly combined for 21 tackles, four for loss, and were seemingly everywhere for Wisconsin’s defense in containing the run and being a thorn in Michigan’s side in passing situations.

“I thought those two were noticeable, and they played fast and made big plays,” Chryst said. “Quite honestly, they were fun to watch, and certainly a big part of this defense., and defensively, I thought we played well.”

Michigan put up a fight, however, and even with the run game closed up, Peters made plays through the air that caused some adversity for the Badgers in the first half.

Peters completed seven of 12 passes for 133 yards, including passes of 19, 35, and 48 yards, in the first two quarters.

Ferguson, who recorded four tackles and a pass break-up in the win, said Michigan attacked their “rules” and found holes in the coverage.

“Every coverage has something that’s a little bit harder to cover and they were just catching us in it,” Ferguson said. “Like I said, in the second half, we were aware of it and aware of what they were trying to do and we made the plays.”

The 35-yard pass from Peters to tight end Zach Gentry in the second quarter almost backed Wisconsin up against its own goal line at the six-yard line, but the Badgers escaped due to a timely turnover.

Three plays after the long pass, Peters scrambled left on 3rd-and-goal toward the end zone but coughed up the ball. Jacobs was credited with the forced fumble, which fell into the hands of senior cornerback Derrick Tindal at the one-yard line to take points off the board for the Wolverines.

“So first, I was in zone, but it turned into man, and I saw the quarterback rolling so I had to make sure he got past the sticks so the receiver is ineligible,” Jacobs said. “When I went to go tackle him, I kind of used my arms, and then I saw him reach.

“I was like, ‘Oh man, he scored,’ and then I saw ‘DT’ come up with the ball, and luckily, we got the ball back.”

Peters again struck through the air, however, on Michigan’s next possession to tie the game at 7–7. A 48-yard reception to wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones against Tindal’s coverage, followed by two more receptions of 19 and 14 yards over the next four snaps, allowed fullback Ben Mason to scored from one yard out to cap that seven play, 84-yard drive.

“They had some success throwing out of some bigger personnel groups, so it was just us kind of losing a little bit of focus here and there,” Connelly said, “so once we locked in and figured everything out, I think it started turning around for us.”

In the final 30 minutes, Wisconsin played its best football defensively yet again.

Against Michigan, which could have ridden huge waves of momentum with its own impressive defensive effort that controlled Wisconsin’s offense for most of the game, it was no different.

After converting four of nine third downs in the first half, Michigan only moved the chains on that down once in eight attempts the final 20 minutes. Harbaugh’s offense only achieved four first downs in the second half,

On 28 plays, those 65 yards were yielded in the final 30 minutes. That included 22 rushing yards, with Michigan quarterbacks completing only four of 14 passes for 43 yards.

The biggest play in this time frame was a 22-yard reception by fullback Khalid Hill on Michigan’s first offensive play of the second half, with only one play over 10 yards for the rest of the game.

“We honestly didn’t make any adjustments at halftime,” Connelly said. “It just comes down to whether or not we can do the jobs we know we have to do.”

Again facing a “sudden change” defensive situation after quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s interception in the third quarter, Michigan could only gain eight yards on five plays. UW held the Wolverines to only a 39-yard field goal from Quinn Nordin.

After that drive, Wisconsin’s offense responded with a seven-play, 77-yard series that ended with A.J. Taylor’s 24-yard touchdown reception to take a 14–10 lead.

The Badgers’ defense locked down after that. Michigan would not get beyond Wisconsin’s 49-yard line for the rest of the game. In that second half, the longest drive for the Wolverines was 26 yards, which ended in a punt.

The futility of Michigan’s offense was later magnified when Peters left the game late in the third quarter after a hit by outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. Wisconsin pressured the sophomore quarterback all afternoon, recording two sacks (one each by Edwards and Garret Dooley) and four hurries before he exited the game.

Back-up John O’Korn did not fare well in Peters’s place, completing only two of eight passes for 19 yards.

Asked about the confidence of the unit that can shut down opposing offenses, Jacobs pointed to its chemistry.

“I think it starts with we’re all close in the locker room,” Jacobs said, “and then if one person is not making plays the other person will make plays, whether it’s linebackers, DBs, or d-ends.”

It has become a broken record week in and week out to describe just how dominant this unit under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has become, not just in those final two quarters of each game, but the entire season.

Heading into Saturday’s contest, Wisconsin led the nation in total and rushing defense (247.6 and 81.5 yards per game, respectively), was third in points allowed (13.4), and seventh in passing yards allowed (166.1).

Against another top-25 program, the Badgers’ defense again answered the call, asserting itself as one of the best in the nation.

“We have had good defenses, and the characteristics are names, to me,” Chryst said.

“It’s Leon Jacobs, it’s Garret Dooley, it’s Conor Sheehy, it’s Alec James, it’s Derrick Tindal. They’re putting their spin on it, and certainly have been fortunate. They’ve been really well-coached, but it’s the players’ opportunity, and they’re the ones putting their stamp on it, and I think that it’s fun to see this group doing what they’re doing and continue to be challenged as the season moves on.”

“But I think the stamp is those guys. it’s their moment, and I think they’re trying to do everything they can to maximize it.”