MADISON—Paul Chryst was asked post-game if it looked like Nick Nelson didn’t know if he should pick up Michigan’s third punt of the game on Saturday. Furthermore, just what was the head coach thinking on the sideline with the ball just rolling slowly on the ground?
“Pick it up,” Chryst said simply to a room of laughter.
Luckily, Nelson, the redshirt junior cornerback, did just that, proceeded to skirt along the right sideline then cut left towards the middle of the field for a 50-yard touchdown and Wisconsin’s first score in its 24-10 win.
It was the first punt return for a touchdown by a Badger since Kenzel Doe’s 82-yard return in Wisconsin’s win over Utah State in 2012. Like Doe’s over five years ago, it provided a much needed jolt to the team.
“I feel like it gave us a spark,” Nelson said. “It gave us momentum, and momentum’s huge in games like this.”
Thanksgiving came early for @BadgerFootball's Nick Nelson and he was ready to eat. pic.twitter.com/Nk0JnbR8Us— Wisconsin On BTN (@WisconsinOnBTN) November 18, 2017
The punt from Brad Robbins hit around Michigan’s 47 or 48-yard line, then trickled to midfield. It appeared one of the gunners on the Wolverines’ coverage unit tripped in front of Nelson, which gave him the extra second needed to start something special.
“Give him credit, he picked it up and maneuvered it for a touchdown,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That hurt. We can’t let that happen, but it did.”
Nelson, who transferred from Hawaii, has been a revelation at cornerback in taking over for the departed Sojourn Shelton. To say he has made an impact on this team is an understatement. Along with two tackles against Michigan, he broke up two more passes on Saturday.
That broke UW’s single-season record for pass break-ups in a year (20), which was previously held by Mike Echols in 2000.
With at least three games left to play this season, he could add on to that, though he downplayed his accomplishment after the game.
“It’s just PBUs, like nobody knows PBUs,” Nelson said. “If it was interceptions, then it would be a different story, but nobody notices PBUs.”
In addition to locking down the other cornerback slot opposite senior Derrick Tindal, Nelson earned the punt returning job over another player who wore No. 11, wide receiver Jazz Peavy, heading into the season. Coming into the game against Michigan, the cornerback and Hawaii transfer returned 18 punts for 108 yards (six yards per return), but had a long of 20.
Adding another 18 yard return on top of his 50-yard race to the end zone, Nelson boosted his average to 8.8 yards on the year.
“We've been excited about Nick, and we don't always get those opportunities,” Chryst said. “We'll look back at it, and there's a lot of guys that helped. That was, obviously, the first score, that was a huge play and certainly gave everyone some energy.”
D’Cota Dixon emerges again in three safety subpackage
Against Michigan’s rejuvenated rushing game, Wisconsin at times utilized a 3-4 subpackage that included three safeties—seniors Natrell Jamerson and Joe Ferguson, along with a returning D’Cota Dixon.
The look from Jim Leonhard’s defense, removing a cornerback from the field in the process, was part of a game plan and subsequent impressive effort that held Michigan’s offense to 58 rushing yards on 37 carries (1.6 yards per attempt). That was the fewest yards gained on the ground by Jim Harbaugh’s unit this season.
“The last two weeks they’ve been lining up with a ton of tight ends and fullbacks and cramming it down people’s throats, so we wanted to take it upon ourselves to get the right people out there and stop the run,” redshirt senior safety Joe Ferguson said. “A lot of that was the d-line and linebackers, too, but D’Cota did a great job of filling, and that’s what he does is make plays.”
To be fair, Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters completed a 35-yard reception to tight end Zach Gentry with Wisconsin in that particular look.
The personnel was also seen last week against Iowa, though redshirt freshman Eric Burrell took the place of Dixon.
After missing wins against Illinois and Iowa, while having to be replaced by Ferguson two weeks prior at Indiana, Dixon tallied four tackles and a pass break-up in his return to the field on Saturday.
“it’s just nice to have older guys out there that know the defense and know how to get lined up and don’t have to worry about each other,” Ferguson said. “So just having the three of us out there that are comfortable and everything and able to talk to each other and all understand the defense the same way, it was huge.”
Dixon reiterated Ferguson’s notion.
“I think it helps a lot, you got guys who have played together for years,” Dixon said. “There’s a lot of experience in that back end, so obviously I think that contributes a lot and it also sets the standard for the young guys who watch and the young guys who are behind us. It was great, it was great. I was just thankful I got to step on the field finally. It was just fun.”
Dixon admitted after the game he was unsure of his role this week, noting he was limited in practice with defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard wanting him to “feel it.”
“He didn’t want me to push it. He does a really good job of working me, not trying to reinjure or re-irritate, agitate it even worse,” Dixon said. “Honestly, I really didn’t know. It was really just kind of going off day-by-day, I would feel rep-by-rep. Fortunately, it worked out. I was able to get a little bit of plays in today, so thankful for that.”