MADISON — So much was said during a long offseason about the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers replacing seven starters and several contributors on a defensive unit that was ranked among the nation’s best last year.
On Friday night, the 2018 edition passed its first of 12 exams. After dominating a Western Kentucky Hilltoppers offense for the first half, it overcame some adversity in the final two quarters of Wisconsin’s 34–3 win inside Camp Randall Stadium.
Obviously, this was a one-game sample size, against a WKU offense replacing standout quarterback Mike White. Considering how Wisconsin contained the Hilltoppers’ up-tempo offense handily in the first 30 minutes then held them to only a field goal and allowed only three points in three consecutive red-zone trips during the third quarter, it was a solid start to build upon for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s revamped unit.
“I thought we just did a good job competing,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “One of the big things that we focused on was communication. [Western Kentucky is] a team that does a good job of moving your eyes and making you stay disciplined, and I just thought throughout camp we kept building on communicating and we did it tonight.”
The Badgers entered the game with seven new starters on defense and without two key defensive ends in Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk, both of whom were presumed to start after spring practices but are injured. Then their secondary, already having to replace three starters, took a significant hit when redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams announced his departure from the program on Wednesday.
Nonetheless, Wisconsin held WKU to 305 yards. Forty-one came during mop-up time. The Badgers also held the Hilltoppers to 5-of-16 on third-down conversions.
“I think it was just the ability to carry over what we did in practice and it translated on to the field,” inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “Just with the young guy behind us, they were communicating and talking all game just really makes you feel confident in them. Obviously they played really well, especially our corners tonight.”
The defense started off strong in the first two quarters, suffocating the Hilltoppers’ offense by allowing only 79 yards and holding them to only 1-of-6 on third-down conversions in the first half. Out of six drives, not including the kneeldown before halftime, Wisconsin forced four three-and-outs in the first 30 minutes.
The second half was bit of a different story, but Wisconsin’s defense held when its back was against the end zone.
On the first WKU series of the third quarter, quarterback Drew Eckels connected on passes of 18 and 48 yards to Quin Jernighan and Jacquez Sloan, respectively. Safety Scott Nelson said afterward that it was his mistake for having “bad eyes” on the nearly 50-yard throw.
“It was a little instincts, but it will tighten up,” Nelson said.
That led to the Hilltoppers finally getting on the scoreboard with a 25-yard field goal from Ryan Nuss.
Despite the lapse, Nelson performed well in his first career game, starting alongside redshirt senior D’Cota Dixon. The redshirt freshman recorded seven tackles—tied for best on the team with Edwards—and two pass break-ups.
Edwards thought the young defensive back was confident on Friday.
“He’s one of those guys who’s always around the ball,” Edwards said. “I think he and D’Cota play really well together—they kind of feed off of each other, so I was just excited to see him out there having fun and finally getting to let it loose.”
Eckels and the Hilltoppers marched down the field on their next possession, aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty against inside linebacker Chris Orr. They found themselves at Wisconsin’s 10-yard line before the defense nullified any potential scoring chance. On a 3rd-and-3, WKU ran a trick play where Jernighan took a pitch from the running back and attempted to pass back to Eckels. Unfortunately for the Hilltoppers, Jernighan’s pass hung in the air long enough for true freshman cornerback Faion Hicks to make the first interception of his career.
“Faion’s a really smart kid,” Connelly said. “We knew they were a gadget team. We knew that was one of their go-to trick plays. Just good to see him to stay disciplined because it would be easy for him to just flow over, but Faion is really smart and we trust him back there.”
Hicks said he was in man coverage against his assigned defender.
“My guy went hard inside,” Hicks said. “I saw from the corner of my eye that the receiver was coming back across and I saw the quarterback going to the end zone, so I kind of fell off my guy.
“I thought the pass was going to be more direct for me to make a hit, but instead it was really in the air for a little minute, so I went and got it.”
The unit again would have to hold its ground that quarter, as five plays later, running back Jonathan Taylor coughed up a fumble that was recovered by the Hilltoppers.
Last season, Wisconsin’s defense thrived under “sudden change” opportunities when pressed back onto the field. With WKU taking over at the Badgers’ 18-yard line, all the Hilltoppers could muster were four yards in four plays and a turnover on downs.
“Every team is different, but it’s something you want to pride yourself on,” Edwards said. “Kind of the ‘bend but don’t break’ and something that I think we’ve been here for a long time, and don’t want to stop it now.”
After Wisconsin capped its scoring with a Garrett Groshek 43-yard touchdown reception off a screen pass, Western Kentucky drove 69 yards in 15 plays against the defense made up of mostly reserves. When back-up quarterback Davis Shanley scrambled out of the pocket and toward the end zone, Nelson met him first with a hit, lining up redshirt sophomore safety Eric Burrell to lay a huge hit at the three-yard line. The ball jarred loose and Orr recovered to end another potential scoring drive.
“I just think it’s something that we’ve prided ourselves on here for a long time,” Edwards said. “Even the guys that are rotating in, they know that, and they take a lot of pride in not letting them in, so I was just excited to see everyone out there competing and kind of doing what we do.”
The word that was consistently spoken by the players early Saturday morning was “communication,” especially with what Edwards discussed was “window dressing” that WKU threw at the defense. Both Edwards and Dixon complimented the talking between the players, and that is a positive sign and more-than-solid base for a defense still somewhat green.
When asked if he wondered how this mix of starters and newer contributors would perform when the game started, Edwards said he thought it was “just a new team, a new defense.”
“I think you want to see what roles guys are going to take and how they’re going to handle adversity and things like that, and how even us veterans can grow and learn to be better leaders and things like that. So I was just excited everyone was out there competing, having fun, and just letting it loose.”