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Wisconsin defense adjusts, then suffocates Florida Atlantic’s offense

The Badgers’ defense took over in the second half.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON — For the second straight week, the Wisconsin Badgers’ defense faced an up-tempo offense trying to throw off its chemistry and communication.

For the second straight game, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s squad had to defend a short field and yielded a touchdown.

Yet, for the second consecutive contest, Wisconsin’s defense corrected itself and dominated Saturday’s second half. The Badgers stymied the Florida Atlantic Owls in the final 30 minutes on the way to a 31–14 win at Camp Randall Stadium.

UW (2–0) held FAU (0–2) to only 248 total yards and 2-of-14 on third-down conversions. The defense also recorded five sacks and 10 tackles for loss while registering eight three-and-out series.

After allowing 198 yards over the first two quarters, Wisconsin clamped down on FAU’s attack in the final two, giving up only 50 yards and pitching a shutout across the final 30 minutes. Like last week in UW’s 59–10 win over Utah State, adjustments were made that played a key role.

“I think that something in the second half that we were able to do was we were able to kind of get our pass rushers more at the quarterback,” said outside linebacker Garret Dooley, who recorded four tackles, two for loss, and a sack in the win.

“Obviously, it was able to show in the second half. We were able to get [FAU quarterback Daniel Parr] down a few times and get a lot more pressure. But in the first half, it was something where we didn’t get him into many third-and-longs. It was third-and-shorts where they were doing quick passes where we don’t get much pressure, so I think being able to stop the run, holding them to maybe one, maybe two yards on first down, is something that helped us in the second half so that we could get after the quarterback.”

The game started off well for Wisconsin’s defense, as the Badgers gave up just 15 yards on three FAU drives. All were three-and-outs, and all were 1:36 or under in duration.

After Wisconsin’s offense opened up a 14-point lead, however, some of the communication issues safety D’Cota Dixon mentioned after last week’s win surfaced. Even during its second offensive drive, FAU missed an opportunity for a first down or more on a 3rd-and-3 with two receivers split wide left with only one defensive back to defend, but Parr hesitated and was sacked by inside linebacker Chris Orr.

Miscommunication did allow the Owls’ offense to gain its third touchdown of over 60 yards through two games, as Parr found wide receiver DeAndre McNeal for a 63-yard score to cut the Badgers lead to seven points with 3:09 left in the first quarter.

There appeared to be a disconnect in expected coverage over the top from a safety. Cornerback Nick Nelson stayed underneath, which allowed McNeal to get behind him for the score.

“I was over there. I was in the nickel,” said Tindal, who noted the corner thought he would receive help deep. “I ain’t really going to tell all of our plays, but it was relayed to me, but I should have done a better job relaying it to the corner, and I didn’t. It turned into a big play, but we got to fix that.”

Wisconsin’s defense allowed another long completion from Parr to McNeal for 35 yards down to the UW 18-yard line after going up 21–7 midway through the second quarter. Yet the defense held, and with FAU’s field goal attempt botched, it dodged a bullet.

After an Alex Hornibrook interception two plays later allowed FAU to start at UW’s 27-yard line, the Badgers’ defense was forced on short rest to try to hold once again.

Similar to last weekend when Utah State notched a deep score on the ground, FAU drove down the field in five plays and a Devin Singletary one-yard touchdown run made it 21–14.

“I think whenever we’re put in that situation, I think our energy and our mindset just needs to change fast,” said Orr, who finished the game with a team-leading eight tackles. “When you’re on the bench, you’re expecting the offense to keep driving. When you get third down, then you get alerted to it, but when it’s a quick turnover, then your whole mindset has to switch from relaxing a little bit to getting your energy back up and get ready to capitalize, so I think that’s all it is.”

After allowing six yards a play in the first half—and 11.7 yards per pass attempt due to the long completions—Wisconsin’s defense allowed only 50 yards on 21 plays (under 2.4 per attempt).

“We were more in nickel defense and more in man, so coach [Leonhard] just let us go out and play,” said outside linebacker Leon Jacobs, who finished with six tackles, two for loss, along with a sack and a pass break-up.

Yet again, better communication between the players contributed to dominance in the final half of the game.

“In the first half, we had a few mental errors,” Orr said, “and we just had to communicate better, and came out in the second half sharper.”

UW held FAU’s offense to eight total yards on 13 plays in the third quarter, which was also helped by a holding penalty negating another big passing play from Parr to McNeal. Two sacks by Dooley and Andrew Van Ginkel, the first of his FBS career, also helped keep the Owls’ potent offense at bay.

“I would say our communication was better in the second half than it was in the first half, and that was kind of one of our things we talked about at halftime,” redshirt senior defensive end Alec James said. “Getting everybody lined up and ready to play, kind of getting guys’ eyes’ right, seeing the right things and adjusting right.”

The Badgers reduced the number of plays the Owls ran from 33 in the first half to 21 in the second. The up-tempo style FAU liked to run and that initially contributed to mistakes was thwarted.

“Every time you play a quick-paced team, that’s how they try to beat you,” Tindal said. “Miscommunication, because they try to weigh you down and get you tired. But once you go and hit them in the mouth, they’re going to slow down and things are going to get a lot easier. Then you just got to do a good job, come out strong, communicate to a fast-paced team. I feel like we adjusted, and as you can see, they slowed down the tempo on their offense.”

Next week will be a test at BYU, but Wisconsin expects to continue to build upon the positives while learning from their mistakes on both sides of the ball.

For Leonhard’s defense, those words—communication, communicate—once again permeate as the focal point.

“I just want to see more communication out of all of us, myself included, but I feel like that’s going to come,” Tindal said. “Basically, I feel like we’re playing well, we’re sticking with our technique and sticking with what coach Leonhard taught us.”